Mike Memoli et al., NBC News, October 4, 2022
As they plot a post-midterms legislative agenda for President Joe Biden, White House officials have been considering whether changes to the country’s immigration system should be one of his major policy pushes, according to White House officials and other people familiar with the discussions.
The talks are happening within a small group of Biden aides, and the president hasn’t yet made any decisions, the sources said. The policy details of any immigration push, as well as its scale and scope, would depend on the makeup of Congress and the political climate, the people familiar with the discussions said.
Such a push reflects an acknowledgment among Biden’s advisers that as he prepares for a re-election campaign based on the slogan “Promises Kept,” immigration remains a 2020 campaign pledge that remains largely unfulfilled.
Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to wield the issue against Democrats ahead of November’s elections by pointing to record numbers of illegal border crossings, throwing Biden and his fellow Democrats on the defensive even as they counter that they’re the ones striving for a bipartisan solution.
“The challenge is that Republicans have a stranglehold on making any progress,” said Cecilia Munoz, who was the director of the Domestic Policy Council in Barack Obama’s White House.
Biden sent Congress a comprehensive bill to overhaul the immigration system on his first day in office. But he has expended no political capital to move it forward in the nearly two years since, while Democrats controlled the House and the Senate.
Now, however, some Biden officials believe elevating immigration to a high-profile priority could benefit the president regardless of the outcome in the midterms: Either he makes bipartisan progress in revamping the immigration system, or he casts the GOP as nativists determined to block migration to the U.S.
“There’s the desire to do immigration,” a person familiar with the discussions said. “Then there’s reality.
“He got most of what he campaigned on done in two years,” this person said of the president. “Immigration is really the only big thing that’s still sitting out there.”
A new NBC News/Telemundo poll shows Latino voters are nearly split on Biden, with 51% approving of the job he’s doing and 45% disapproving. And Republicans continue to cut into Democrats’ advantage with that constituency overall, according to the poll.
Latino voters prefer Republicans over Democrats when it comes to crime, the economy and border security, the survey shows. But they also believe Democrats would do a better job than Republicans on immigration more broadly, along with health care, abortion and addressing the concerns of their community.
The White House discussions also reflect some Biden advisers’ view that he can turn the tables on attacks from the GOP, which has used immigration against Democrats in the midterm elections with some success.
The Republican governors of Florida and Texas have kept the border security issue in the headlines by relocating migrants to Democratic enclaves.
The White House has offered only a muted response in recent weeks as border crossings from Mexico to the U.S. have reached nearly 8,000 per day, according to data obtained by NBC News.
The White House has also come under growing pressure from immigration advocates who want the president to make a forceful push on the issue and don’t believe he has done enough.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Look what they [Republicans] will do to you,’” said Gabriela Domenzain, who was the spokesperson on immigration issues for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. “You have to say, ‘This is what I’ll do,’ and then defend it and speak about it. But it’s not happening.”
He has repeatedly cited abortion rights, for instance, but only recently has he raised immigration, both times at events marking Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15.
Any policy push from Biden is likely to include more than legislative proposals, immigration included. The White House already is considering executive actions to address some aspects of immigration policy in the absence of congressional movement, specifically to try to protect the status of many DACA “Dreamers” — immigrants who were brought to the U.S. when they were children but lack legal status and were granted protections under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (A decision on the program’s future is expected soon from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)
Executive actions on immigration can go only so far, however, and they inevitably face court challenges.
A more concerted push for immigration legislation would both allow Biden to say he’s working harder to fulfill a major campaign promise and potentially put the GOP in a difficult spot. Republicans face conflicting demands from two key constituencies: the business community, which wants to expand the labor force with additional legal migration, and a powerful GOP base that, led by former President Donald Trump, is demanding tougher border enforcement.