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By Tarini Parti | January 18, 2024 | MSN
An immigration deal being crafted in the Senate would limit migrants’ ability to claim asylum at the southern border, a White House concession some progressives say shows that President Biden’s leftward shift on immigration as a 2020 candidate was a blip in his long political career.
The deal, which would come in return for new war aid for Ukraine and Israel, is already facing steep odds on Capitol Hill with House Republicans making tougher demands.
“We have talked about the necessary elements to solve this problem,” House Speaker Mike Johnson (R., La.) said after a meeting with Biden on Wednesday at the White House. Among them, he added, “is reform to the broken asylum and parole systems.”
Biden’s willingness to negotiate with Republicans lays bare what many liberal Democrats have long feared—that he is willing to move to the right to cut a deal on immigration and secure funding for the wars.
A CBS News poll conducted earlier this month found Biden’s approval rating on handling immigration issues to be at a record low, with 68% of those surveyed saying they disapproved of his border policies and 63% saying they wanted him to be tougher.
In his five-decade political career, which often centered on his foreign-policy priorities, Biden rarely took on the thorny issue of immigration policy—and when he did, he usually backed a moderate stance.
“The president has certainly changed his tune from when he campaigned on how important it was to protect and restore the asylum system,” said Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D., Ill.), a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
For three years, the administration has struggled to curb the surge in migrants at the southern border, and Republicans are seizing on the issue to argue against his re-election. The White House also sees that political vulnerability, and a bipartisan deal could blunt those attacks.
A White House spokesman said the administration has led the largest expansion of lawful pathways in decades, worked with partners across the region to address irregular migration, and enforced the law by removing and returning more than 482,000 individuals who had no legal status to remain in the U.S.
“As the president has said, our immigration system is broken, and that is why his administration is working to find a bipartisan agreement on border funding and policy that will deliver effective and meaningful reforms,” he added.
Biden has tended to make the political calculation that the middle-of-the-road voters he cares about don’t give priority to fixing the immigration system, said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of immigration rights group America’s Voice, and former national coalitions director for Biden during the 2020 primary.
“They wanted to win with bread-and-butter progressive issues, and immigration was not one of those,” she said.
As a senator, Biden voted in favor of several restrictive measures, such as a 1996 law increasing penalties for illegal border crossings and a 2006 law authorizing construction of a border fence. But those votes put Biden in line with most other Democratic senators at the time.
When he served as vice president in the Obama administration, his experience on immigration policy was largely limited to his diplomacy work. He visited Central America and spearheaded an aid package aimed at creating jobs and reducing violence in the areas sending the most migrants to the U.S. But he wasn’t closely involved in a bipartisan immigration overhaul that passed the Senate in 2013 and ultimately failed in the House.
“Like in ‘Hamilton,’ was he in the room when it happened?” said former Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D., Ill.), who worked on immigration issues throughout his overlapping tenure with Biden in Congress and on the 2013 compromise bill while Biden was vice president. “No, he was never in the room when it happened.”
In his 2020 bid against former President Donald Trump, Biden briefly revived Democratic hopes of setting a more progressive immigration agenda, bringing on backers of his Democratic primary rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to draft policy proposals to unite the party.
His campaign released what became the most liberal immigration proposal of any mainstream Democratic candidate in history. Among other things, it pledged to shut down all privately run immigration detention centers, protect longtime workers lacking permanent legal status and reverse many of Trump’s border policies.
The president, advisers say, was particularly influenced by first lady Jill Biden’s emotional reactions to the Trump administration’s policy of family separations and his “Remain in Mexico” program, which denied U.S. entry while asylum claims were pending. The first lady had visited a tent camp of migrants living just across the southern border in Matamoros, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.
On his first day in office, he followed through on several of those pledges. He halted construction of Trump’s border wall, reversed the travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries and ended the Remain in Mexico policy. He also sent Congress an immigration proposal, seen as a Democratic wishlist, including a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million immigrants who were living in the U.S. illegally when Biden took office.
But there was never a concerted effort to push the bill through the then-Democrat-controlled Congress, as the administration did with other bills that Biden eventually signed into law, such as the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Progressives’ hopes on immigration policy quickly faded, and the bipartisan criticism of the continuing surge of migrants at the border has only gotten louder: Republicans are making the border a central part of every political fight, and Democratic mayors, who are struggling to manage the influx of migrants being bused to their cities by Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, have called on the federal government to do more.
The president, who likely faces a rematch against Trump to win re-election, is still resistant to some proposals that feel too reminiscent of the Trump administration. He remains uncomfortable with bringing back any form of Remain in Mexico, though advisers brought him numerous ideas on ways to run the program that gave priority to migrants’ safety.
He has also drawn a line against large-scale workplace raids that target employers who hire many undocumented immigrants and against detaining migrant families at the border.
But with mounting political pressure, Biden has reiterated to advisers that his main priority is to see migration plummet and has signed off on certain measures used by Trump, implementing a version of his predecessor’s asylum rule that would make migrants who move through another country on the way and don’t first apply for asylum in that country ineligible for asylum in the U.S.
As part of the border-deal negotiations with Republicans, the White House has also recently signaled it would accept some changes to humanitarian parole, an authority that allows the government to let in people who don’t qualify for a visa. The Biden administration has been using it expansively to let in migrants who register with the government in advance so that they don’t enter the U.S. illegally.
The administration has all but shut down work on several of the campaign ideas Biden laid out, such as finding ways to allow undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for decades ways to work legally. Officials say the only ideas that are considered now are ones pitched at reducing migrant flows to the border.
“Democrats run away from the immigration issue as soon as things get difficult,” said Marielena Hincapié, a longtime immigration advocate who worked on immigration policy for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “Biden immediately went into reaction mode. Republicans do the complete opposite: They lean in.”