Why Biden Must Collide With the Democratic Party on Immigration

By Mike Madrid

Featured in the New York Times

The negotiations on Ukraine funding and stricter border protections have exposed a growing rift between President Biden and his own party. Republican hard-liners have demanded a bill that mirrors policies advanced during the Trump administration, especially ones related to asylum seekers, increased border security and the mandate that companies institute the E-Verify employment eligibility system.

Democrats such as Representative Pramila Jayapal called the proposals “cruel, inhumane and unworkable,” but Republicans believe they have found solid ground with voters. Recent polling suggests the Republicans are right. A CBS News/YouGov poll released on Sunday found that 68 percent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Biden’s handling of border security.

There are many, both inside and outside his party, who believe that by agreeing to the Republican deal, Mr. Biden would be surrendering too much moral high ground and any future policy leverage. But in fact, this is a chance for him to make meaningful border-security policy changes and redefine his party as the home of an aspirational multiethnic, working-class coalition.

Securing the borders of a sovereign state isn’t racism — it’s among the first responsibilities of government. And many voters, including Democrats, are demanding that the Biden administration do a better job with that responsibility. A recent Fox News poll showed that fully 22 percent of Democrats favor Republican candidates on border security.

More than any other group, Latinos have political views that correlate with — indeed, are racially and ethnically defined by — the immigrant experience. Yet even these voters are conveying growing concerns about border security. According to an April 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, about 44 percent of Hispanics and 48 percent of respondents overall think illegal immigration is a major problem, an increase of more than 15 percentage points since June 2020.

The supposition among much of the Democratic establishment and progressive activists is that Latino voters prioritize more relaxed immigration policies over border security. To win re-election, President Biden must redefine the narrative that has become orthodoxy and lead his party toward supporting significantly enhanced border security measures.

While this would be a prudent political move, such a shift would most likely lead to an internal Democratic civil war. While Biden’s election efforts in 2020 hinged on just enough White Republican suburban women leaving the G.O.P., the defection of traditional minority Democrats  notably Latino, Black and Asian voters — narrowed his margin of victory. Younger voters and voters of color, a key coalition, have shown the largest drop in support. But brokering a deal with the Republicans could help him shore up the nontraditional alliance that got him elected four years ago.

Latinos have flummoxed Democrats in recent elections by shifting right in three of the last four national elections. This shift is about far more than immigration reform, but it is undeniable that it has been pronounced in border communities, especially in Texas and New Mexico, where the crisis is most acute. The failure of Democrats to propose meaningful border security measures has led to them being vulnerable to Republican attacks of supporting “open borders.”

Mr. Biden, whose campaign has only recently and reluctantly begun to acknowledge the slide in support by Latino (in fact, all nonwhite) voters for the Democratic Party, is facing growing pressure from advocacy groups to take a more progressive position on immigration than the party in past decades — even though polling and electoral data suggest Latino voters are moving in the opposite direction.

The president will have to challenge the Democrats’ established doctrine on the border and party’s view of how Latinos view border policy — a move that will reposition the Democratic coalition to better benefit from the demographic changes among Latino voters in the short, medium and long term. The rightward shift among Latino voters has exposed an uncomfortable cleavage between the Latino immigrant-advocacy groups that rose to prominence in the 1990s and the views of their first- and second-generation children, who dominate the Latino voting population.

President Biden’s re-election strategy is clearly not working — but it is fixable. Immigration, the undocumented and related issues have been overemphasized by institutional Democratic Latino voices, including consultants and organizations vested in an outdated narrative. Latino voters, meanwhile, are far more focused on basic economic concerns and public safety, issues where Republicans tend to poll better among working-class voters.

The immigration measures that progressive and establishment Latino Democrats favor, while desperately needed and a moral imperative, are a nonstarter for House Republicans and not terribly important to Latino voters. Mr. Biden would be smart to agree to beef up border security, restrict asylum and move on to its economic messaging, precisely the issue Latino voters are telling pollsters they want to hear more of.

The president finds himself and his re-election prospects at a crossroads. He can double down on a strategy of outwardly opposing increased border protection, or he can reframe the debate and begin to rebuild the ethnic and racial coalitions that brought him and Barack Obama to power. To do that, he must assert that a Latino agenda, as it exists, has grown far bigger than one predominantly focused on ethnic ties to immigration.

Mike Madrid is a co-host of The Latino Vote podcast, a Republican consultant, co-founder of The Lincoln Project, and founder of GrassrootsLab.

Category: Op-Ed, Politics
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