Immigration politics bedevil Democrats ahead of planned border easing

AP-Eugene Garcia

The thorny politics of immigration is heating up ahead of the midterm elections, as moderate Democrats are urging President Biden to keep tough COVID-19 restrictions in place at the country’s borders while House Republicans are pressing those same Democrats to force a vote on legislation to do just that.

The GOP’s procedural gambit, known as a discharge petition, is almost certain to fail.

But it’s highlighting a political vulnerability for Democrats while putting pressure on centrist lawmakers — particularly those facing tough reelection contests in November — to fight harder to block Biden from removing the border protocols known as Title 42, which lawmakers in both parties fear will lead to an unmanageable surge of migration at the southern border.

The debate has led a handful of moderate Democrats to offer an alternative proposal requiring the administration to maintain the restrictions until 60 days after the federal COVID-19 health emergency is lifted and directing Biden to propose a specific plan for preventing a border surge.

While several Republicans have endorsed that bill, others pushing for the GOP proposal say that it doesn’t go far enough to fend off a migrant wave.

“I’m not interested in a half measure,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said this week in a phone interview. Roy is leading the discharge petition on the tougher GOP bill.

The Title 42 border restrictions were installed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March of 2020 under former President Trump in the name of preventing the spread of the newly arrived coronavirus.

As the number of national cases receded this spring, CDC officials announced their intention to eliminate the protocols, which empower border authorities to turn away new arrivals, even those seeking asylum. They set a date of May 23. 

The announcement was hailed by liberals, who have long advocated for the repeal of Title 42, arguing that it’s stolen the rights afforded migrants under U.S. law to claim asylum from threatening conditions at home.

But it’s sparked an outcry not only from Republicans — whose proposal would keep the border controls intact until domestic COVID-19 restrictions, federal and state, are eliminated — but also from centrist Democrats, who fear a deluge of migration at the southern border that would almost certainly hurt the party in the midterms.

“The numbers have been very high here in South Texas. And once you get rid of Title 42, [they’re] going to go up,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), a Blue Dog Democrat whose district borders Mexico, said Thursday by phone. 

Cuellar ticked off a number of recent statistics driving his concerns, saying that in his district, around the border city of Laredo, roughly 60 percent of Border Patrol agents have been forced into “care in custody” duties, like changing diapers and making food for the new arrivals. 

“That means that only 40 percent of the manpower of the Laredo sector is really doing national security missions,” he said. 

“With all due respect to the White House, they listen a lot to the immigration activists, but they’re not listening to the Border Patrol; they’re not listening to the people who live at the border,” added Cuellar, who said he voiced his concerns with White House officials on several occasions before the CDC announcement.

“I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about the mayors, the county judges, the ranchers, the landowners that are down here,” he added.

The discharge petition for Republicans’ Protecting Americans from Unnecessary Spread upon Entry from COVID-19 (PAUSE) Act, which was introduced by Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-N.M.) in January of last year, needs 218 signatures to force consideration on the House floor.

So far, 211 Republicans have signed on, accounting for every GOP member except Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). Kinzinger’s office did not clarify the reason he has not signed on, and no Democrats have endorsed the legislation. Three GOP signatories are no longer in office, but they still count toward the 218 benchmark.

But a handful of moderate Democrats teamed up with five House Republicans on an alternate Title 42 bill, the Public Health and Border Security Act. Unlike the PAUSE Act, it does not require the end of state COVID-19 health emergencies and the lowering of CDC health risk levels to end the border policy.

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) is leading the bill, joined by Democratic Reps. Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), Chris Pappas (N.H.) and Greg Stanton (Ariz.). Cuellar added his endorsement over the weekend, and Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) signed on Thursday, an indication that vulnerable Democrats are feeling heat on border issues from constituents during the House recess.

If those seven Democrats signed the PAUSE Act discharge petition, it would reach the 218 mark to force a vote. But that is extremely unlikely, with Democrats like Cuellar saying they’re opposed to the language in the GOP bill that attempts to influence state policy. 

There’s also a more general reluctance among Democrats to buck their leadership by endorsing a GOP discharge petition — on any issue. 

Lawmakers in the majority party — even those supportive of the legislation in question — almost never endorse discharge petitions put forward by the minority out of deference to their own leadership, which controls the floor. Indeed, over the last two decades, only two discharge petitions have reached the 218-vote threshold: a campaign-finance bill in 2002 and a popular proposal to extend the authority of the Import-Export Bank in 2015. 

Still, several efforts have come close, including a GOP-led discharge petition in 2018 designed to win votes on popular immigration reforms opposed by Republican leaders who controlled the House at the time. It won the backing of more than a dozen moderate Republicans — many of whom would lose their reelection bids later in the year — but fell two signatures shy of 218. 

Republican staff involved with the PAUSE Act said they reached out last year to Democrats who they thought would be interested in signing on, like those with border districts in Texas, to no avail. Now that nearly the entire Republican conference is behind the bill, they’re renewing conversations with Democrats. Cuellar, though, said he was not among them.

“I’m not familiar with the bill,” he said.  

House Republicans have tried to publicly pressure Democrats to join the discharge petition. Leadership attempted procedural moves, and the House Freedom Caucus last month released an open letter urging Democrats to bypass Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) and sign on.

On the floor last week, a “conga line” of 70 GOP members, one after another, requested unanimous consent to consider the PAUSE Act. Each one got shot down, but the display for nearly 30 minutes delayed debate and a vote on holding Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino in contempt of Congress for not complying with subpoenas from the select committee investigating the Capitol riot.

Roy expressed frustration at Democrats and some of his GOP colleagues teaming up on the Golden bill nearly a year after he launched the discharge petition and that it took “brow-beating” to get nearly the whole Republican conference behind the bill.

“Welcome to the friggin’ party,” Roy said. “I’m frustrated that, as usual, a bunch of my Republican colleagues ran to the bipartisan microphones to go say they’re doing something.”

Requiring the Biden administration to submit a plan on how to handle a post-Title 42 border surge without defining what kind of plan would be acceptable is “classic Washington,” Roy said. And he decried Democrats’ focus on Title 42 rather than on a host of other border and migration policies.

“Title 42 is just literally a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound,” Roy said. “We need to require the secretary of Homeland Security to turn away people at the border if you can’t hold them.”

The White House, meanwhile, is defending the CDC’s decision, saying it was based solely on changes in pandemic conditions on the ground.  

“Title 42 is not an immigration measure, it’s a public health measure,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week. 

But that argument has landed with a thud among moderate Democrats worried about both the practical and political ramifications of another border surge.

Cuellar, for one, noted that even as the administration is seeking to repeal Title 42, it also recently extended the federal public health emergency period and the mask mandate for airline travel while continuing to press Congress for billions of dollars in funding for vaccines, testing and other COVID-alleviation measures. 

“That’s a mixed message,” Cuellar said. “You can’t extend a public health order here in the U.S. and then say that there’s not a problem at the border and get rid of Title 42.”

Tags 2022 midterms Biden Border Chip Roy democrats Henry Cuellar immigration Joe Biden

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