Vulnerable Democrats buck Biden on Trump-era immigration fight

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) speaks to reporters following procedural votes for nominations on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.
Greg Nash
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) speaks to reporters following procedural votes for nominations on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) offered a stark warning to the administration as he visited the U.S.-Mexico border this week: Without a comprehensive plan, they could face a “humanitarian crisis.” 

The administration’s decision to end the Trump-era Title 42 policy, which allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants at the border and blocks them from seeking asylum due to the pandemic, has opened up a high-profile rift between Biden and Democrats in races that will determine if they keep the Senate majority. 

Kelly is leaning in to a border fight with the administration as he seeks his first full six-year term in November. Republicans view immigration as a potent political issue not only in Arizona — a border state with one of the country’s largest Hispanic populations — but in states with races far from the border.

Kelly, speaking with reporters during his fifth trip to the state’s southern border since joining the Senate, said he was in frequent contact with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas but that the administration reaction had so far been “unacceptable.”  

“Right now we have a crisis on our southern border. … Right now this administration does not have a plan. I warned them about this months ago … and they do not have a plan in place on how to deal with the increased numbers. And it’s going to be, to be honest, it’s going to be a crisis on top of a crisis,” Kelly said. 

Kelly is typically a reliable ally for Biden and has avoided the sort of backlash from fellow Democrats that has sparked talk of a primary challenge against Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — who isn’t on the ballot until 2024. 

But immigration has been a running point of tension between Kelly and the administration, dating back to the earliest days of Biden’s presidency. Kelly spoke with Mayorkas in January 2021 about the need for border security. And after Biden’s 2021 address to Congress, Kelly criticized the president for not laying out a comprehensive plan to “address the immediate crisis at the border” and vowed to “continue holding this administration accountable.” 

“Senator Kelly has spent his first 16 months in office addressing the issues that matter most to Arizonans, which is why he’s worked for months to ensure a humane, orderly process at the border. Senator Kelly has proven he’s someone Arizonans can always count on to put our state first,” said Sarah Guggenheimer, a spokesperson for Kelly’s campaign.

Though Arizona tilted toward Democrats in 2020, Republicans are vowing to use immigration, and Biden’s low poll numbers, to try to flip the Senate seat in 2022. They view Kelly’s stance on Title 42 as the Democratic senator trying to find distance from the president and the national party heading into November. 

Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told The Hill that “the worrisome thing for Democrats like Mark Kelly is that it’s likely to get worse” and that the administration’s decision was “driving a wedge in their party.” 

“I think that’s why you see this politically motivated backpedaling on Title 42, is they recognize that it’s likely to make the situation at the border even worse than it already is. And it’s going to draw even more attention to what’s already a bad situation,” he added. 

Republicans, in particular, point to a spate of budget votes Kelly and other 2022 Democrats took last year related to the border and immigration as fueling their campaign attacks. 

“The Democrats are the gift that keeps giving. We are delighted to not only be discussing their economic failures but also their failures at keeping our southern border safe,” said T.W. Arrighi, a spokesman for the Senate GOP’s campaign wing. He predicted that the elimination of Title 42 “will not earn them any additional votes, but will surely cost them liberal votes.”

Kelly, in a joint press release with Sinema, was one of the first Senate Democrats to criticize the administration’s decision to rescind Title 42. 

But he’s hardly alone, underscoring the firestorm over the issue.

Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) and Raphael Warnock (Ga.), two other Democrats facing tough elections this fall, have also slammed the administration’s decision. 

In Wisconsin, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination to take on GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he opposed the administration’s decision “because there’s not a detailed plan in place so that we can keep asylum seekers and people in the country safe.”

“I’d like to see Biden put forward a comprehensive plan that deals with an influx of asylum seekers before we lift Title 42,” he added. 

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who is up for reelection in November, used the Senate’s April recess to visit the southern border for a third time, including releasing a photo of herself standing in front of the border wall. 

Hassan, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement that she would “keep pressing the administration for a comprehensive plan to strengthen border security and deliver additional resources to the border, which is especially important given its recent announcement to end Title 42.”

Distancing themselves from the administration’s Title 42 decision carries its own set of risks.

Biden faced pressure for months from immigration advocates and Democratic allies to end the Trump-era policy that they viewed as illegal and cruel to those fleeing persecution and danger. The order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifts Title 42 on May 23. 

But a Politico and Morning Consult poll found that 54 percent of registered voters surveyed said they oppose the Biden administration’s decisions, while 35 percent support the move. 

Though 62 percent of Democrats polled said they supported the decision, only 33 percent of independents held the same position compared to 53 percent who said they opposed the move. 

Underscoring the tricky political situation Hassan is facing, the Senate GOP arm both accused Hassan of having a “MAGA makeover” and touted criticism Hassan faced back in her home state over the trip and the photo — from New Hampshire progressives. 

Kelly and Hassan are two of the five Democrats who signed on to a bill last week to effectively prevent the administration from lifting Title 42 by tying it to the public health emergency. The other three Democrats who joined with a group of Republicans to introduce the bill are Sinema and Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), all three of whom are up for reelection in 2024. 

A group of Arizona immigration advocacy groups released a joint statement stressing that they “emphatically disagree” with Sinema and Kelly that Title 42 should stay in place for now. 

“We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to those in need at our borders or ignore clear inequities in Title 42’s implementation — inequities that were recently highlighted by DHS’s explicit support for exempting Ukrainians at our borders from Title 42,” the groups wrote. 

“While we welcome this change,” they added, “it stands in stark contrast to DHS’s treatment of black and brown migrants, who have been forced to wait in danger all the while.” 

Tags 2022 midterms Arizona Biden democrats Georgia immigration Joe Biden Mark Kelly Title 42 Title 42 Trump-era Wisconsin

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