On immigration, President Biden needs a re-set

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

With their eyes on the upcoming midterms, Republican lawmakers are already weaponizing the immigration issue against President Biden. “If you look at what’s happening at the southern border, it is a total disaster. This is absolutely a crisis,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in September. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said that Biden is doing “nothing” at the border. Former Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller told CNN that he is advising GOP candidates to elevate the immigration issue “to the center of our national dialogue.”

Given this political reality, Biden needs a re-set on immigration.

While the president has taken constructive steps on the issue, his administration has not broken with the failed policies of his predecessor. The Biden administration lacks a coherent immigration plan, and until the president can clearly articulate one, misleading GOP rhetoric will fill the messaging void.

Certainly, the Biden administration has made positive moves on immigration. They have refocused interior immigration enforcement, so that federal agents prioritize violent criminals and national security threats for deportation. They have ended mass workplace raids, and no longer use the “public charge rule” to make it harder for immigrants to apply for legal status. Most people are not aware of such successes because the GOP has effectively reduced the immigration conversation to discussions of the “border crisis.” Biden should be touting his accomplishments that will resonate with the progressive base, like the increase in the number of refugees allowed to settle here.

In a statement to CNN, a White House spokesperson noted that, “The president has made clear that restoring order, fairness, and humanity to our immigration system are priorities for this administration.” Really? Then the administration should drop the use of Title 42 along the border. This is a Trump policy that was put in place on public health grounds, ostensibly to protect the U.S. from the spread of COVID-19. It allows the U.S. to turn back migrants at the southern border, preventing them from applying for asylum. But many experts say it does not protect public health, while immigration advocates rightly point out that it amounts to a violation of migrants’ legal right to apply for asylum.

Ironically, the continued use of Title 42 is a gift to the anti-immigration crowd. Because the provision turns back migrants swiftly, they are free to turn around and try to cross the border again. This drives up the overall number of apprehensions. The use of Title 42 makes the number of illegal border crossings appear higher than they really are, which provides the GOP with confirmation of its talking point that the border is out of control. Consider that in Fiscal Year 2021, 27 percent of people apprehended by Border Patrol were apprehended more than one time.

Then there is the administration’s continuation of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, another Trump-era holdover. It forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico until their cases are resolved here, putting migrants at risk of kidnapping, forced gang recruitment, rape, and murder on the other side of the border. To his credit, Biden tried to end this program, only to have a federal judge order its reinstatement. Why, then, did the Biden administration expand the controversial policy to include more categories of migrants?

There’s no good explanation, unless you consider political calculations.

In his first year in office, Biden and his officials have been largely reactive on immigration, letting Republicans define the issue. This must change. Biden may have been thinking that he needs to appear “tough” on border and immigration policy, to preclude GOP attacks. Yet Republicans will attack him on immigration no matter what he does, so it’s time for a new approach. The president should move ahead with reestablishing a safe asylum system, promoting immigration reform, and presenting a clear alternative to the GOP’s fear mongering.

Immigration is a complicated issue with no easy fixes. However, polling shows that Americans support ideas like a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and legal status for those brought to the U.S. illegally as children. A July Gallup survey found that only 31 percent of Americans want to see immigration levels decreased.

Instead of trying in vain to placate the right on immigration, Biden should take bolder steps that will earn him points with progressives and swing voters. Nervous administration officials should also remember that in 2018, Republicans ran big on anti-immigration rhetoric — and lost the House.

The Biden administration must lean into the immigration issue, not run from it. Smart, humane immigration measures are good policy — and good politics.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.

Tags Biden immigration policy Greg Abbott Immigration policy of Donald Trump Immigration to the United States Joe Biden Mexico–United States border crisis Opposition to immigration Remain in Mexico Ron DeSantis Stephen Miller

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