By Mike DeBonis
WASHINGTON — President Biden is facing a growing mutiny from Democratic candidates — including five vulnerable senators — who are questioning his administration’s decision to lift a pandemic health order that has drastically curtailed migrants’ ability to seek asylum at the southern border.
The internal dissension is an early acknowledgment from many Democrats that worries about border security and immigration could become a major obstacle for them in this year’s midterm elections. Polls show the topic to be a leading concern for voters, and one on which Biden has received low marks.
Now, candidates are openly warning that the Biden administration’s decision to stop using the public health order, known as Title 42, could lead to chaotic conditions at the border and refocus public attention on an issue that has challenged president after president.
Democratic senators from Nevada to Georgia to New Hampshire have distanced themselves from the move, charging that the administration has yet to present a satisfactory plan to prepare for the expected increase in attempted border crossings. The decision also threatens to create friction between these Democrats and liberal voters demanding more protections for migrants.
Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney and former aide to Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Democrats are in desperate need of a “reframing” of the border issue. “Because this debate, the way it’s currently structured, is very bad for Democrats,” he said. “Either we have Title 42 and no chaos, or Title 42 and chaos. That’s just not a good look for anybody right now.”
The Trump administration used Title 42 to expel tens of thousands of migrants, and until recently the Biden administration continued renewing the policy. Republicans have signaled they are eager to make the border a centerpiece of their political message, tying it to a larger argument that Democrats have been ineffective in fighting crime and drugs, and have struggled to rein in chaos at home and abroad.
The border could create broader political implications in the battle for the Senate, where Democrats’ narrow majority is at risk this fall. One key Democrat who has raised alarms is Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, the Senate’s first Latina. Cortez Masto has broken with some fellow senators of Hispanic descent who have pushed Biden to lift the pandemic-related border policy. She is seeking reelection in a swing state — one where, polls suggest, Republicans are well positioned to take advantage of deteriorating public approval for Biden and increasing anxiety about the economy, crime, and the border.
Cortez Masto said in a statement after the April 1 announcement that “the administration is acting without a detailed plan” in allowing the Trump-era policy to expire at the end of May. “This is the wrong way to do this and it will leave the administration unprepared for a surge at the border,” she said, calling instead for a more comprehensive approach to immigration.
Similar accusations have come from four other Democratic senators facing competitive races this fall — Michael Bennet of Colorado, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Mark Kelly of Arizona, and Raphael Warnock of Georgia — who have all suggested that the administration is acting too rashly. Kelly and Hassan are co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation that would delay the scheduled May 23 removal of the Title 42 policy for at least 60 days beyond the sunset of the COVID national emergency declaration, which was recently renewed into July. Hassan and Kelly also recently visited the southern border.
Addressing reporters Wednesday after touring a border checkpoint in his home state, Kelly said proceeding to lift the policy next month would create a “crisis on top of a crisis.”
“It shouldn’t be around forever,” Kelly said of Title 42. “But right now, this administration does not have a plan.”
But there is also risk for some Democrats in opposing the end of Title 42 too aggressively. Some are already facing dismay from immigrant advocates who see calls for delay as a warning sign. They include Cortez Masto, who was swept into office in 2016 thanks in part to Nevada’s sizable Latino electorate.
“If now is not the time, when is the right time?” said Rico Ocampo, an immigrant organizer with Make the Road Nevada, who called Cortez Masto’s calls “disappointing” and said advocates would “keep a close eye” on how she and other Nevada politicians vote on Title 42 in the coming months.
Democrats facing reelection this year, Fresco said, are “100 percent justified” in airing frustration with the Biden administration’s border moves so long as the choice is binary. “But what is not justified at all is doing nothing about it,”’ he added, calling on the frustrated lawmakers to offer a third option and show voters they are at least pursuing it.
The backlash has repercussions that reach beyond the campaign trail. Already it has complicated the Biden administration’s request for billions of dollars in additional pandemic funding to pay for more doses of vaccine and therapeutic drugs. After congressional negotiators struck a tentative $10 billion deal earlier this month, the agreement fell apart when Senate Republicans insisted on an amendment vote that could keep Title 42 in place.