By Susan Crabtree for RealClearPolitics
Sen. Maggie Hassan is the latest Democrat in a tough reelection fight to sound the alarm over Biden’s decision to overturn Title 42, which allows US authorities to turn away migrants at the border to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The Department of Homeland Security has warned that reversing the pandemic immigration rule will lead to up to 18,000 illegal crossings a day, up from the current pace of roughly 6,000 a day.
While advocates for looser immigration laws have applauded Biden’s decision, Hassan and several other House and Senate Democrats facing difficult midterms are leaning into the border fight with the administration. In recent weeks, they have joined forces with Republicans in backing a bill that would prevent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from following through with an order that will stop authorizing Title 42 in late May.
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It was an abrupt turn-about for Hassan. During the Trump administration, the New Hampshire Democrat opposed the border wall and voted against punishing sanctuary cities. She also opposed the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which allowed the government to release immigrants with asylum claims to Mexico to await their hearings in the United States.
But after a visit to the Texas border this week, Hassan said it drove home her concerns about Title 42 reversal and the flood of illegal crossings since Biden took office.
“Border agents were very clear with me that the end of Title 42 will lead to a steep increase of attempted crossings that they will not be able to effectively handle because they don’t have enough resources,” Hassan said in a statement after her visit in early April. “In particular, agents told me that they need additional personnel, physical barriers, and technology at the border to stop illegal crossings, which is especially important because they expect that smugglers will try to take advantage of the increase in attempted crossings.”
Hassan joined Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia in co-sponsoring the bill with several prominent GOP senators. In the House, Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is facing a primary threat from progressive Jessica Cisneros, is one of at least six Democrats to sign on to a similar bill.
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After a year of chaotic scenes at the border and reports that a record number of illegal immigrants have entered the country since Biden took office, the issue is splintering Democrats and opening up an easy line of attack for Republicans. House Republicans have launched an effort to force a vote on the floor that would keep Title 42 intact.
In the Senate, a vote on an amendment to block the administration’s attempt to jettison the pandemic immigration rule derailed passage of a $10 billion COVID-19 relief bill the GOP helped negotiate.
Morning Consult, a polling company, recently called ending Title 42 “Biden’s most unpopular move yet,” noting that 56% of US voters oppose the White House plan to remove the pandemic-era border controls. Among Democratic voters, those disapproving fall to 26%, with 37% of independents opposed.
But Hassan’s hardened position on immigration is not paving the way for an easy glide path to victory in November. Over the last 48 hours, she has taken some hits from the left for criticizing Biden. Eva Castillo, director of the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, said she was “beyond disappointed” by Hassan’s decision to buck the administration on Title 42.
“I’m upset that she took the time to do this and to make a video out of it and to use US immigrants as political pawns for an election,” she said.
Late last week, the executive team of New Hampshire’s Democratic Latino Caucus resigned in protest, citing Hassan’s and Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas’ opposition to Biden’s less restrictive border policies.
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Republicans, meanwhile, are highlighting the intra-party divisions, arguing that Hassan’s immigration flip-flops are too transparent to help win over voters.
“It’s hard to understand MAGA Maggie’s campaign strategy,” TW Arrighi, a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman, said Friday. “Infuriating your base while winning no votes is a strategy the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] can get behind!”
With the Democratic Party so divided over the issue, in this cycle their most vulnerable members and challengers undoubtedly will alienate a slice of their voters no matter their immigration position. Some appear to be bidding their time, trying to avoid taking a position on Title 42 even if previous remarks or voting records suggest a willingness to embrace Biden’s less restrictive approach to immigration.
For instance, in southern New Mexico, Gabe Vasquez, a first-generation American born in Texas, is challenging GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell for a seat traditionally held by Republicans. But instead of running to the middle, Vasquez, a Las Cruces city council member, is tacking left. Act-Blue, a Democratic fundraising powerhouse, calls him a champion for “economic justice, affordable housing, and healthcare for all.”
When it comes to immigration, however, Vasquez’s website appears to try to strike a balance by casting his position as “advancing comprehensive immigration reform.”
“I’ve lived on both sides of the US-Mexico border, and I’ve seen the challenges and opportunities of our current immigration system firsthand,” his campaign website states. “I’ve seen the immense benefit that immigrant workers and families bring to our communities and the economy. But our immigration system is broken, and we need leaders in Congress who will put politics aside to fix the problem – not play political games. We must reform our immigration systems to protect DREAMERS and provide hard-working families with a permanent path to citizenship, while ensuring we have a safe and secure border.”
In the past, however, Vasquez appeared to readily embrace the far left’s defund ICE movement, which Biden and other Democratic leaders have tried to distance themselves from. Just days after Democrats lost more than a dozen House seats in 2020, Gabe Vasquez reacted to a tweet stating that “Climate Justice policy must also abolish ICE and CBP” with two fists and the words, “the only ICE we need to be melting.”
The Vasquez campaign did not respond to RealClearPolitics questions about the tweet and his position on Title 42.
Texas redistricting made the 15th district more competitive for Republicans, so Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who previously held the seat, is running to represent the much bluer 34th district. The March 1 Democratic primary results were so close that it prompted a run-off between Ruben Ramirez, an attorney and Army veteran, and Michelle Vallejo, a business owner and progressive activist. Neither Ramirez nor Vallejo have said whether they support Title 42, although Ramirez has equated “border security” with “national security” and won’t endorsement of the centrist Democrat Blue Dog Coalition.
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The immigration section of Vallejo’s campaign website provides some clues. She says she supports a “pathway to Citizenship for all 11 million undocumented” people living in the country, champions stronger asylum laws, and labels the US criminal justice system “racist.”
“We must create clear boundaries between the immigration system and the racist criminal legal system,” the website states. “We need to embrace the border as a fusing place of ideas and culture and encourage innovation to flourish.”
One state over in Arizona’s 6th district, which includes the northeast suburbs of Phoenix, three Democratic candidates are competing for a chance to run against Republican Juan Ciscomani, a senior adviser to GOP Gov. Doug Ducey. Redistricting made the district more competitive for Republicans, although Biden still won it by less than a percentage point. Rep. Anne Kirkpatrick, who won the seat by 10 percentage points in 2020, was the first member to announce her retirement from the House this cycle.
Two of the three candidates vying in the Democratic primary have long records in the state legislature, including several votes against a state law enforcement unit devoted to immigration interdiction.
In 2019 and 2020, both Kirsten Engel and Daniel Hernandez Jr., two Democratic state representatives competing for a chance to represent the district in Congress, opposed greater funding for more vigorous border enforcement. Both Engel and Hernandez voted against bills providing millions of dollars for the state’s Border Strike Force, a highly trained group of state troopers who have helped fight criminal activity in Arizona communities since its creation by Ducey in 2015.
In early 2020, they both opposed a resolution that would have recognized and thanked the men and women of the US Border Patrol while proclaiming that ICE’s work is “critical to enforcing immigration law.”
Neither campaign responded to RCP’s inquiry regarding their position on Title 42.
Meanwhile, some senators and House members in tough campaigns are eager to get out in front of the issue before the new, even greater flood of immigrants starts arriving in the country, creating more negative headlines for the administration and for Democrats in general. Hassan and Kelly are trying to work behind the scenes with DHS to develop a plan to prevent chaotic scenes at the border in the months leading up to this fall’s midterms.
“The administration should not end Title 42 until it has a comprehensive plan in place to strengthen border security and deliver the additional support to the border,” Hassan said. “The administration really needs to step up here, develop a plan and get more resources to the southern border.”
CORRECTION: The story originally said that the 6th district of Arizona was redrawn to give Republicans a seven-point advantage. In fact, President Biden won the redrawn district by less than one percentage point. RealClearPolitics regrets the error.
Syndicated with permission from Real Clear Wire.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.
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