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Border debate shifts as Biden is confronted with anger — from Democrats

The Biden administration has approved border wall construction as an influx of migrants in left-leaning states brings fresh criticism from Democrats.
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CHICAGO — Calls to do more to control the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country have been an unrelenting GOP rallying cry, a central tenet of party beliefs.

But with tens of thousands of migrants now attempting to settle in blue states and cities around the country, the ground has shifted in the national immigration debate, with Democrats increasingly calling on President Joe Biden to take action on the border.

It’s all quickly created a political headache for the president.

Late Wednesday, the Biden administration took the extraordinary step of waiving a slew of environmental laws to move forward with construction of a roughly 20-mile stretch of new border wall in southern Texas.

Though the White House says the decision to move forward with new border wall construction was not tied to calls for action from blue state governors, it comes after their agitation grew to a crescendo.

Perhaps the most notable political turn for Biden came this week when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Biden campaign surrogate and major Democratic donor, took aim at the administration’s “lack of intervention and coordination at the border.” In a public letter, Pritzker escalated past pleas for help — which included the governor in April personally asking Biden at the White House for assistance, according to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on May 18, 2022.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has called on the Biden administration to do more about the migrant crisis.Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune via Getty Images file

Pritzker also called on the administration to play a role in directing where and how migrants are transported once they cross the southern border. The governor’s office said it estimates that numbers will quickly rise, with nearly 1,200 new migrants now arriving in Chicago a day — and temperatures in the city set to soon start dropping.

“This is a major humanitarian crisis that we have never experienced before in the modern age in this city,” Sol Flores, Illinois' deputy governor, said in an interview. Flores argued the Biden administration could do more, given that the majority of the migrants she sees are seeking asylum.

“They can take over the interior coordination, and they could work with all 50 states," as well as activate their Office of Refugee Resettlement, she added.

"The federal government has the infrastructure, they have the framework, they have the capacity to do this. They know how to move people."

It all marks a new era in the debate over immigration facing Biden and it stems from a new kind of migrant crisis, one that’s landed in Democratic-leaning cities and states in middle America, the East Coast and beyond because of the transporting of migrants from Texas, including their busing to those areas by the state's Republican governor, Greg Abbott. Abbott, as well as several Texas organizations, began sending migrants to sanctuary cities last year. The cities complained there was no coordination before the arrivals.

Eventually, left-leaning states like Illinois, New York and Massachusetts declared states of emergencies, asking for federal assistance. Democratic leaders in those states say migrants are overwhelming shelters, schools, hospitals and police stations in places like Chicago, Denver, New York and Massachusetts.

On Thursday, Biden addressed the border wall construction, saying the money had previously been appropriated by Congress.

“I tried to get them to reappropriate it, to redirect that money,” he said. “They didn’t.”

He also flatly replied “no” when he was asked whether he thought the border wall worked. Still, in a notice posted to the Federal Register on Wednesday, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said: “There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers … to prevent unlawful entries.”

In the past year, the states have reported that their situations have only grown more dire, and that's stirred aggravation in public officials who are typically allies of the president. 

Denver is among the cities grappling with the influx. The city recently asked for more state assistance but the number of new people arriving keeps rising, Denver Human Services spokesman Jon Ewing said. He said the aggravation is not just with the Biden administration but with Congress and “the entire federal government.” 

“More than anything what we’re looking for is coordination,” Ewing said. “It very much feels like this is a national crisis, but it isn’t being felt by every city equally.” 

“El Paso is overwhelmed, we sympathize with El Paso,” he added. “It is a bad situation for everyone right now.” 

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MAY 09: A migrant father from Venezuela feeds his 15-month-old son in the lobby of a police station where they have been staying with other migrant families since their arrival to the city on May 09, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a state of emergency on Tuesday amid a surge in migrant arrivals which began in August 2022 when the first group of immigrants were bused from Texas to Chicago by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. According to Lightfoot's office, more than 8,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since last year, with the city currently reaching "a breaking point." About 500 migrants have reportedly been living in the lobbies of police precincts around the city where they sleep on the floors and rely on food donations. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A migrant father from Venezuela feeds his 15-month-old son in the lobby of a police station in Chicago on May 9.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, has lashed out at the Biden administration and the Department of Homeland Security, which in turn criticized his handling as “not an operationally sound effort.”

The strain on city and humanitarian services isn't going unnoticed by Biden allies in New York.

“There has been some reticence among New York donors because of the perception in New York that the Biden Administration has not done everything that they can do to address the migrant problem," said Steve Rattner, a longtime Democratic donor who was head of President Barack Obama’s auto industry task force. "That’s a problem that we’re facing.”

The White House has said it has deployed 800 new active-duty military personnel to increase enforcement at the border, and it recently granted Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelan migrants who arrived before July 31, allowing them easier access to work permits. Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were also in Mexico City on Thursday to discuss migration, among other topics, with Mexican officials.

According to NBC News polling, Republicans have their biggest-ever leads on the question of which party better handles immigration. Democrats fared much better on this question during the Obama administration — and even the Trump administration. 

From the NBC News poll in September, 45% of respondents said Republicans better handle the issue of immigration, compared to 27% who said Democrats do — an 18-point lead for the GOP.

In October 2020, at the tail end of the Trump administration, Democrats held a 6-point lead on the issue, 44-38. During the Obama administration, in July 2016, Democrats also held a lead: 39-35. Recent polling, then, suggests that there’s something specific about how the Biden administration has handled immigration that has caused public opinion to shift away from Democrats on the issue.

In an interview, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas — who has long accused the federal government of not paying enough attention to border communities — said Democratic officials in northern cities like New York and Chicago had underestimated the problem that migrant influxes pose.

“When you’re 1,500 miles away and you see people coming in on TV, that’s one thing,” he said. “But once they’re right in your own backyard and you’re seeing them in your own neighborhood or your city, it becomes real."