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Biden's Ukraine aid deadline falls prey to rapidly shifting U.S. immigration politics

The Senate left for the holidays without a breakthrough in negotiations on an issue in which the ground has shifted beneath Democrats' feet since 2013, when they were on offense.
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WASHINGTON — In a briefing with senior White House officials in the Old Executive Office Building on Dec. 8, progressive activists raised deep concerns about President Joe Biden’s offer to compromise with Republicans on immigration in exchange for funding for Ukraine’s war against Russia, according to two people in the room and a third person familiar with the conversation.

Their worries spanned the substantive — immigration and asylum restrictions favored by Republican lawmakers — to the political fear that Biden would harm himself with Latino voters by leaving too little contrast with former President Donald Trump.

White House domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden told the activists that she wouldn’t argue with them over the specific immigration proposals and that “different groups, including Latinos, support policies to secure the border,” said the person familiar with the meeting. One of the people present recalled Tanden’s message about public opinion on immigration a little differently, paraphrasing her by saying, “It’s not a priority for Latino voters.”

The person familiar with the meeting disputed that account. Tanden didn’t respond to a request to discuss the exchange, and a White House spokesperson declined to comment.

Either way, it was clear that some of the progressive activists were at odds with both the political and the policy wisdom of an asylum and refugee crackdown. It left at least one of them who spoke to NBC News contemplating whether Biden saw new immigration restrictions as a feature, not a bug, of the negotiations with Republicans as he seeks re-election.

The meeting underscores the uncertain ground Biden stands on as he heads into 2024, having agreed to link a top legislative priority — aid to Ukraine — to an issue that divides his own party and has eluded his last three predecessors.

If he secures Ukraine aid in an immigration deal, albeit past his own year-end deadline, he will have to contend with angry progressives just when he needs them most. And if he can't secure the assistance he has promised to provide Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” it could jeopardize his foreign policy goal of stopping Russian President Vladimir Putin’s territorial advances.

'Don’t you see the same polls?'

The Senate negotiations reveal a ground that is shifting beneath Democrats' feet on immigration politics. Immigrant rights advocates and their allies on Capitol Hill, particularly in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are blasting the talks as one-sided and trying to scuttle them. But those groups have found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, polling shows, and many Democrats in competitive territory want to cut a deal to mitigate what they view as chaos at the border.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who represents a competitive, majority-Hispanic district that includes a long stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, said he has told the White House that Latino voters want tougher border security and that the Biden administration and campaign are losing the community’s support because they’re perceived as weak on the issue.

“I said ‘Guys, don’t you see the same polls we’re seeing?’” Cuellar said. “But they’re afraid to anger some folks within the party.”

A September NBC News poll found that “immigration or border security” ranks third on the list of issues for registered voters. On “dealing with border security,” respondents said they trust Republicans over Democrats by a 30-point margin. Even Black voters, normally pro-Democratic, preferred Republicans on the issue, 42% to 22%, and Latinos preferred Republicans by 43% to 28%.

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, just 32% of U.S. adults say they’re confident Biden will make “wise decisions about immigration policy,” while 67% said they’re not confident. The confidence figures were 59% among Democrats and 32% among independents.

Cuellar defended the policy and the political wisdom of tougher immigration laws, saying, “People are using asylum to come in when most of them don’t qualify for asylum.”

“But they’re using that because they know they can get to first base, which means across the border. So we need to calibrate that,” Cuellar said. “We are going to lose people — Hispanics and Democrats — on the politics of not securing the border.”

A changed landscape

At the outset of Senate negotiations, Democrats demanded some wins of their own, including legalization of young “Dreamers,” or participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, who have lived in the U.S. for years. The chief GOP negotiator, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, swiftly said no. “DACA is not border security. This is a national security package,” he said.

Since then, the talks have moved on. A DACA provision isn’t on the table, but it’s something Democrats hope to revive, said a source familiar with the talks, while a GOP aide said reviving DACA is “not viable, and the negotiators know it.” Talks have centered on tougher asylum laws, including raising the “credible fear” standard to have one’s claim heard by a judge.

The new framework of the negotiations — centered on stricter laws — illustrates the dramatic political shift on the issue since 2013, when many Republicans thought the answer to demographic changes that hurt the party electorally was to legalize people already in the U.S. A comprehensive bill passed the Senate but died in the GOP-led House. The following year, a surge of unaccompanied minors at the border began a shift in the landscape that persists today as a record number of migrants cross into the U.S.

“We do have a problem at the border,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday. “Democrats know we have to help solve that problem, but in keeping with our principles.”

Before lawmakers left Washington for the Thanksgiving break, Schumer called a group of Hispanic Democratic senators into his office to update them. He had just given his blessing to bipartisan negotiations led by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and Lankford.

Over two meetings that three people familiar with the discussions described as “frustrating,” Schumer filled the group in on policies that Democrats would most likely need to concede to get a deal with Republicans that would unlock funding for Ukraine.

The message was stark: Leadership might agree to immigration reforms the Hispanic senators find untenable. It was particularly notable coming from Schumer, a co-author of the 2013 overhaul, which included a slew of liberal priorities that aren’t part of the current talks, including a path to citizenship for many.

“I don’t see a good side to this deal, and I hope that Democrats will remain strong — if this is going to be on the table, what is it that Democrats will get for this?” said Vanessa Cardenas, the executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice.

Before Congress left for the year, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., blocked unanimous confirmation of two Biden nominees — one to the USDA and another to the CFTC — to protest the “lack of responsiveness from the administration on the border talks” and the lack of Hispanic Caucus participation, his spokesman Robert Julien said.

‘A pretty clear invitation’

Progressives are left wondering how it reached the point where Biden’s high-priority aid to Ukraine and Israel became conditioned on ceding ground on an issue as contentious as immigration. Some progressives believe Biden erred by adding border security funding to his initial aid package request, but others note Republicans already made it clear they’d kill Ukraine aid without asylum limits.

Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., the Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair, is demanding that Biden “completely reject these ongoing conversations,” saying it would be “a dangerous precedent” to allow Republicans to hold Ukraine aid hostage.

Lankford said the White House issued “two invitations” to link the issues, first by including border money in its funding request in late October. Then, a few days later in a Washington Post piece, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas labeled the funding a mere “tourniquet” and emphasized that policy changes are needed to fix a “completely broken” immigration system.

“We saw that as a pretty clear invitation,” Lankford said in an interview. “The sense has been — they’re saying we’d like to be able to solve some of these things, but we don’t have the authorities to be able to do it. We need those authorities.”

The White House has maintained repeatedly that it doesn’t regret linking border funding to Ukraine aid.

“No, not at all. This is emergency funding. This is much-needed funding.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. “They’re emergency needs.”

A different dynamic in the House

Before he gaveled out the Senate for the year, Schumer all but conceded that the lack of agreement on immigration means Congress will miss the White House’s year-end deadline to pass Ukraine aid. The bipartisan talks are scheduled to continue over the holidays, albeit virtually among the key players, who include Murphy, Lankford, Sinema and Mayorkas, who is there to explain how the Department of Homeland Security would implement some of the policy proposals on the table, three sources familiar with the talks said.

But there's still deep uncertainty ahead about whether the parties can reach a deal at all. Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday in a joint statement they “hope” talks will succeed and make way for a swift vote on tougher border policies alongside U.S. aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Cuellar said mitigating the border problem would hurt GOP attempts to weaponize it for partisan gain. “I think it will be minimized,” he said. “They’ll still use the old videos of people streaming in. But if the numbers go down, then it can.”

Even if senators and the White House get a deal, there's no guarantee it can pass the House, where many Republicans feel confident that the politics of immigration are on their side. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, and other conservatives have said they want Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., to kill any Senate compromise that falls short of the House GOP’s partisan border bill, called HR2, which Schumer has rejected as a nonstarter.

“They don’t seem to understand we want the border to be secure. Stop the flow. That’s it. That’s the end of the inquiry. And anything short of that is a failure by House Republicans if we back off that point,” Roy said. “I don’t want to just say … oh, I’m sorry, we passed a bunch of crap in the bill that didn’t matter.”