WASHINGTON – The immigration debate has undoubtedly shifted to the right.
The border bill Democrats endorsed this past week was far more conservative than anything the party had agreed to in the past – and they slammed Republicans for not going along.
The bill would make it more difficult for migrants to qualify for asylum, while giving the president the power to put asylum fully out of reach for long stretches of time, and it would restrict the president’s ability to give temporary legal status to immigrants who cross the border.
Behind the shift is a transformed political reality, based on public opinion on immigration moving sharply to the right since Biden became president. A variety of factors in recent years – including instability in South and Central America and the end of pandemic-era provisions restricting migration – led the number of immigrants crossing the border to skyrocket to record highs, with Border Patrol taking more than 225,000 migrants into custody in December 2023.
What’s ahead of the shift, according to interviews with Democrats and immigration advocates, is far less certain. Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants, whose legal status has long been what Democrats hoped to gain out of immigration negotiations, were left feeling left out after party leaders instead prepared to trade tougher border enforcement for U.S. aid to Ukraine. The seeming abandonment of their cause has alarmed Latino Democrats.
“Our votes matter. So sometimes that means withholding votes. Sometimes it means continuing to have tough conversations,” Rep. Nanette Diaz Barrigan (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told reporters this week at House Democrats’ annual retreat in Leesburg, Va. “But it is completely unacceptable that the Hispanic Caucus would not be at the table on the issue that we lead on, which is immigration.”
Advocates outside of the government went even further, with many alarmed Democrats are ceding ground even as an increasing number of conservatives are embracing the “great replacement” conspiracy theory and Trump allies are planning deportation camps.
“This bill sets a dangerous legacy and signals to the country that Trump’s immigration policy has captured our government,” United We Dream director Greisa Martinez Rosas said Wednesday.
The pro-immigrant group warned Democrats they were “cowering to the MAGA Republican’s strategy” by supporting the bill.
In prior bipartisan talks over immigration policy, Democrats typically sought some sort of pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S., either those who have been here for years or young people who were brought to the country recently by their parents, in exchange for tougher border policy. By not demanding it this time around, Democrats run the risk of demoralizing a key segment of their political coalition and giving up leverage in future attempts to reform the nation’s immigration laws.
On top of it all, Latino lawmakers couldn’t help but point out their lack of representation in the negotiating team, which included Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), and James Lankford (R-Okla.).
“Why was Alex Padilla not there? Why was Bob Menendez not there?” asked Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas). “Why was not one of our senators there? Because we can continue to do everything we can, but the Senate has to see that there are voices behind us, that someone’s got our back.”
Underlying the political shift is a surge at the southern U.S. border, with unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving there last year, and from more places around the world than ever before. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), architect of an ill-fated bill in 2013 that would have paired citizenship and border security, suggested this week citizenship had become irrelevant to Republicans.
“Are we going to remodel the kitchen when the rest of the house is on fire? We have a fire going on with mass migration,” Rubio said.
Polling from Blueprint, a centrist Democratic group, backs up the idea there was political demand for the deal, even without a pathway to citizenship: 58% of voters supported the deal, while only 22% opposed it. Even among Latino voters, two-thirds supported increasing border security and three-fifths supported making it harder to qualify for asylum.
Democratic voters, meanwhile, are placing less emphasis on immigration than the rest of the country. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College survey released this week found just 3% of Democrats named immigration the top issue facing the country, compared to 11% of independents and 14% of Republicans.
Indeed, two Democratic strategists, both speaking on condition of anonymity to frankly discuss party strategy, admitted Biden’s disappointing performance among Latino voters in 2020, following the party’s leftward moves on immigration – remember ‘Abolish ICE?’ – during the Trump era, set the stage for him to abandon his more liberal campaign positioning on the issue and the comprehensive immigration bill he sent to Congress on his first day in office.
One bluntly said the deal was the best available way for Biden to fend off attacks on immigration, an issue where he regularly polls even worse than his already low-approval ratings.
“The only reason the border is not secure is because of Donald Trump and his MAGA friends,” Biden said on Tuesday, using a line he’s likely to repeat multiple times between now and the election.
Senate Democrats insisted that they weren’t leaving Dreamers or other undocumented immigrants behind, and that, if anything, this year’s negotiations would allow them to build on their progress since they can now point to the GOP’s refusal to accept the deal as evidence of their hypocrisy on the issue.
“I wish we could fix every problem all at once,” Murphy told HuffPost, “but Democrats are the only party that has shown a sincerity about fixing the border. I think the politics are potentially flipping because Republicans have exposed themselves as wanting the chaos and Democrats have shown that we’re serious about the changes in the border.”
“I get it that people in the past have been used to Democrats not talking and leading on the border, but we’re doing that now. And the American public is going to figure that out as we head into the election,” he added.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate and a key participant in many immigration policy negotiations over the years, acknowledged the tradeoff in a Senate floor speech on Wednesday before ultimately voting for the bill.
“I am deeply, deeply disappointed that this bill does not include a path to citizenship for Dreamers, recipients of temporary protected status, farmworkers, or other essential people who have spent years contributing to our society,” Durbin said.
He noted that the border security and Ukraine bill did include increases in green cards and the children of certain visa holders. He vowed to continue pushing for the Dream Act.
For many advocates, however, the party is simply playing a game where the rules are set by the GOP.
“Democrats, you’re never going to be cruel enough, ‘tough’ enough, anti-immigrant enough or able to deport your way to the negotiating table with McConnell and MAGA,” Julian Castro, the former Housing Secretary under President Barack Obama, wrote this week on social media. “Stop playing their game. Don’t act out of fear. Offer a positive vision on immigration instead. America needs it.”
Jonathan Nicholson contributed to this story.