Vulnerable Democrats brace for border surge

Senate Democrats are bracing for a surge of migrants at the Southern border in the wake of President Biden’s decision to rescind a key restriction, creating yet another political headwind for Democratic candidates ahead of the midterm elections.

Vulnerable and centrist Democrats are scrambling to distance themselves from Biden’s decision, which came under intense pressure from progressives and immigration advocates, to limit their own political liability.    

Biden’s decision to reverse the rule known as Title 42, which the Trump administration implemented in 2020 and has been used to carry out 1.7 million deportations, is expected to spur huge new inflows of migrants.    

Sen. Raphael Warnock (Ga.) on Monday became the latest vulnerable Senate Democrat to criticize Biden’s decision.  

“I think this is not the right time and we have not seen a detailed plan from the administration. We need assurances that we have security at the border and that we protect communities on this side of the border,” he said. “I think this is the wrong time and I haven’t seen a plan that gives me comfort.”  

He faces a tough race in a state that Biden narrowly won by 12,000 votes.  

Democratic strategists say the Biden administration needs to be prepared to send federal resources to Arizona and other border areas to prevent local communities from being overwhelmed.    

“When voters think that our party cares more about something else other than we care about the issues that matter in their everyday lives, we lose. And management of the border provides a really good example of that fact,” said John LaBombard, a former aide to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who last week criticized Biden’s decision.   

“It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact on these communities, these small towns whenever there’s a surge in migrants attempting to cross the border. It’s a really big deal,” he added. “These communities have always felt, and Sen. Sinema often points this out, that they’re not getting the support they need from the federal government and instead they’re having to carry the water for decades, for multiple administrations’ failures, as it relates to effectively managing the border.”   

Sinema says that “prematurely ending Title 42 without a comprehensive, workable plan” will put at risk the health and safety of Arizona communities.    

It’s a looming problem for Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who is running for re-election in a state where Biden’s approval rating has drop precipitously in recent months. One of Biden’s biggest vulnerabilities in the state is his handling of immigration-related issues, according to a recent poll.    

Kelly on Friday blasted the administration’s order as “the wrong decision” and said “it’s unacceptable to end Title 42 without a plan and coordination in place to ensure a secure, orderly and humane process at the border.”    

It’s also a political headache in other Senate battlegrounds, where Republicans plan to use the Southern border as a cudgel against Democratic candidates.   

“If they’re going to withdraw Title 42, they got to have something in its place and right now they have nothing and it’s going to be a human tsunami across the border and we’re going to lose control, that’s what the Border Patrol tells me,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary panel’s immigration subcommittee.      

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D), who has a tough race in New Hampshire, warned that “ending Title 42 prematurely will likely lead to a migrant surge that the administration does not appear to be ready for.”   

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday panned the administration’s move as “an unbelievably bad decision.”   

“They’re going to further cave to the far left that wants open borders. They’re going to cancel Title 42 this spring with no real border security plan to replace it,” he said on the floor. “This is such an absurd decision, such an unforced gaffe that even some of our Democratic colleagues have come out swinging.”   

Democratic strategists say it’s smart for Warnock, Kelly and Hassan to ready their defenses in case Biden’s decision invites new caravans of migrants, negative media attention and Republican political attacks.    

“I think it’s probably inevitable that we’re going to be facing down another big surge in migrants here at some point,” LaBombard said.    

“We know there’s going to be challenges at the border so the best case scenario is that there’s a plan in place and the resources in place to support … that should be shaped and guided by direct input from mayors, law enforcement, non-profits,” he added.    

Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist and former advisor to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said vulnerable Democrats were going “to pay a price” for what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border regardless of Biden’s decision on Title 42. But he said the president’s action likely makes the political problem worse.    

“If you look at some of the polling that’s come out … those issues are working” for Republicans,” he said.  

“It seems to add fuel to the fire and it puts some of these more middle-of-the-road Democrats in an awkward position and all of that begs the question as to why you would do that,” he added.    

Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said the administration was under pressure to act because courts were likely to soon rule against the continued use of Title 42 to deny asylum claims. 

“The courts were moving in direction of forcing the administration to act here. To the extent that the administration is now getting in front of that and setting up a plan to do this in an orderly fashion, I think that’s great news,” she said.    

“It’s also better that it’s happening further away from the midterms because obviously immigration is a tricky subject for Democrats and one that divides swing voters from our base in a lot of circumstances,” she explained. “We could not rely on this public safety measure indefinitely to keep people out of the country.”   

Morgan Jackson, a leading Democratic strategist based in North Carolina, a swing state, said he expects Republicans to come at Democratic candidates hard on border- and immigration-related issues.    

“Obviously Republicans are going to try to make immigration a top issue. They have tried to do that for the last ten years, almost every election,” he said.   

He said voters are more concerned about “pocketbook issues” such as the strength of the economy, inflation, rising gas prices and the cost of health care.    

“I think what you’ll see Democrats try to do is talk about issues that actually affect families in 2022. Based on where we are with the economy, based on the uncertainty where we are with Ukraine, I think people are looking for solutions and not just pointing at problems,” he said.    

At the same time, he says its smart for Democrats such as Warnock, Kelly and Hassan to distance themselves from Biden’s Title 42 decision.    

“You’ve got Democrats who are making smart decisions in tough races — Mark Kelly, Maggie Hassan — who say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to let Republicans use this as a talking point on me,’” he said. “By issuing a criticism [of Biden’s decision,] they take this issue off the table for their races.” 

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