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Immigration challenges mount for Biden amid migrant influx

The Democratic-controlled House is eyeing a vote this week on popular legislation to help young "Dreamers." But the left flank of the Democratic Party wants more.
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on March 6, 2021. Angie holds her daughter Yaretsi as they wait to be transported by U.S. Border Patrol in Penitas, Texas, after crossing the Rio Grande on March 15, 2021.
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on March 6; Angie holds Yaretsi, her daughter, as they wait to be transported by U.S. Border Patrol in Penitas, Texas, after having crossed the Rio Grande on Monday.NBC News / Getty Images, Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden faces mounting challenges on the politically volatile issue of immigration as he navigates a growing humanitarian crisis on the border and high expectations that he will deliver on his promise to remake the system.

The Democratic-led House plans to vote on two bills Thursday: One would grant so-called Dreamers a path to citizenship, and one would protect farm workers in the U.S. illegally. Both proposals are likely to pass the House, but they face long odds in the Senate because of the 60-vote hurdle and Republican opposition.

Progressives in the Democratic Party also want the comprehensive immigration bill Biden recommended. But that doesn't have the votes to pass even the House in its current form, aides and lawmakers said.

Republicans, who see a political opening, have been working to paint Biden as the cause of the growing border crisis, blaming it on his shifts in deportation policy, in a bid to appeal to voters who were mobilized by former President Donald Trump's hard line on immigration.

The influx of asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border is overwhelming facilities and squeezing Biden between progressive requests for better detention conditions and Republican demands that he send a tougher message to deter migrants.

"Whatever message was sent, it was sure interpreted the wrong way," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told reporters. "It's a crisis."

Republicans have struggled to dent the public's positive view of Biden's Covid-19 relief bill, but they have seized on immigration and plan to try to leverage the issue in the midterm elections next year, when voters will again decide control of Congress.

"Republicans will continue to drive a wedge on immigration, because they have nothing even remotely popular to say on Covid, the economy or health care," said Democratic consultant Tyler Law, a former aide to the party's House campaign arm in 2018.

'Immigration is always a tough issue'

While Biden's overall approval rating remains strong, immigration has emerged as his biggest policy vulnerability in two recent surveys. A CNN poll indicated that 43 percent of Americans approve of his handling of immigration, while 49 percent disapprove.

Law said the economy and defeating Covid-19 — not immigration — should be Biden's top focus, arguing that "the worst possible move for a new administration is to immediately prioritize legislation that Americans don't view as immediately important."

"Immigration is always a tough issue. It's tough for Democrats, because we are the party that actually wants to solve the problem with comprehensive reform," he said. "The risk for Democrats is looking at too many national polls rather than how these issues play in key states and House districts. While Republicans' caravan alarmism failed badly overall in 2018, it did halt our momentum in deep red, predominantly rural districts."

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chair of the Republicans' Senate election arm, said there must be a "secure border" before Congress acts to protect Dreamers. He said Republicans will "absolutely" make immigration and the border situation an issue next fall.

"It's a big issue in the country right now. And it's all caused by Joe Biden deciding not to have a secure border — 100 percent his fault," Scott said in an interview Tuesday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been at the center of bipartisan immigration efforts for two decades, said, "It's going to be really hard to get a bipartisan bill put together on anything that has a legalization component until you stop the flow."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who took a trip this week with colleagues to the southern border, said the situation was a "Biden border crisis."

The White House has been trying to walk a tightrope between enforcing the law and using its limited resources to provide humane conditions to the migrants after Democrats criticized Trump for months for putting "kids in cages."

The White House said over the weekend that it was mobilizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the border to have a more relief-focused agency handle the waves of unaccompanied children who are arriving.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki placed the blame partly on the Trump administration.

"We recognize this is a big problem. The last administration left us a dismantled and unworkable system," she told reporters. "Our focus here is on solutions."

'Make immigrants welcome in America'

The border situation has overshadowed the larger U.S. Citizenship Act, which reflects Biden's vision to grant a path to citizenship to an estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally and was introduced in both chambers last month. But unlike much of Biden's agenda, it lacks the votes to get through the Democratic-led House.

"I think Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has discovered that she doesn't have support for the comprehensive bill in the House. And I think that indicates where it is in the Senate, as well," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the panel that oversees immigration.

Durbin told reporters Tuesday that he has asked the Biden administration to offer a plan to address the "reality at the border" and said it could become a part of immigration legislation.

Still, he was unsure that Republicans would cooperate.

"It's a challenge. And the new administration deserves an opportunity to respond to it," Durbin said. "I think it's going to be part of the conversation about immigration. Let's assume for a second they're successful in doing it, and six weeks from now we don't have a situation that's as challenging as the one today. Does that mean the Republicans will come forward for immigration reform? I'm not sure."

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Biden brings some baggage to the issue. During the 2020 campaign, he sought to mend fences with immigrant rights activists critical of the Obama administration's high volume of deportations and lack of effort to tackle the issue early, when he was vice president.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he will push for "as bold and strong" an immigration bill as possible, but he was careful not to promise success, as he did with the Covid-19 relief bill.

"We'll do everything we can to explore that area," he said Tuesday. "We want to get to do as much as we can to make immigrants welcome in America."

Julie Tsirkin and Garrett Haake contributed.