Michael Smolens: Immigration turmoil puts Democrats in increasing political peril

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President Joe Biden is getting an earful from Democrats from New York to San Diego who want stronger action to address the heavy influx of migrants from south of the border.

The sense of urgency on the humanitarian front is palatable. The resources to deal with the flow of people coming into the United States are stretched thin at the local, state and national level. Border and immigration agents have been processing and releasing migrants from detention, dropping them off by the thousands at transit stations in San Diego and other locations.

The sense of political urgency for Democrats is unmistakable as well. Immigration has been a troublesome issue for Biden since the beginning of his presidency. Recent public opinion polls show voters have little confidence in his handling of immigration and they believe Republicans would do a better job than Democrats.

Biden’s decisions to move forward on building portions of the border wall proposed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, in Texas and resumption of deportation of Venezuelans to their home country were jarring policy reversals. Symbolically, the moves underscore how fraught the situation is on the ground and, potentially, on Election Day next year.

Border areas from San Diego County to Yuma, Ariz., to McAllen, Texas, have struggled with, and at times seemingly been overwhelmed by, migrants coming north. That has ebbed and flowed in recent years, but the intensity now is back up.

One of the big differences is how this is impacting Democratic cities and states. The diaspora of migrants across the country is not new, but Democratic officials in Illinois, New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere have suggested the situation is becoming untenable and more federal help is needed.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has long asked for more federal assistance, including two weeks ago when the bipartisan panel unanimously declared a humanitarian crisis for asylum seekers at the border.

Republican Govs. Gregg Abbott of Texas and Ron Desantis of Florida may have acted crudely, and maybe cruelly, by organizing flights and buses to ship migrants to Democratic strongholds. The ethics of those moves aside, the governors suggest it gave other areas a taste of the chaos border regions sometimes face.

The issue is bigger than those sideshow tactics, however. Democratic leaders are expressing alarm at their predicament and at times sounding like, well, Republicans.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on CBS’s “Face The Nation” suggested “a limit on who can come across the border,” only to soften her language later after criticism from other Democrats, according to The Washington Post.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently toured Latin American countries to assess the situation and attempt to discourage people there from coming to his city. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said he plans a visit to the southern border to see the migrant situation for himself.

It’s not likely that immigration concerns will cause Democratic strongholds like New York City or Chicago suddenly to become GOP territory. But Democrats representing swing congressional districts, or seeking to win one, could feel the pressure in those regions and across the country.

A nationwide poll conducted for NBC News last month shows Democrats with their largest-ever deficit on the issue of immigration.

On the question of which political party better handles immigration, the poll shows 45 percent of registered voters selecting Republicans and 27 percent picking the Democrats.

“What’s striking about these numbers is that Democrats led Republicans on this immigration-handling question during the entire Trump presidency, for part of Barack Obama’s presidency and during the George W. Bush years,” NBC said.

The GOP advantage on immigration in October 2021, the first year of Biden’s presidency, was 9 percent — half of what it is now.

In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 23 percent of Americans said they approve of the job Biden has done on immigration, while 62 percent disapprove — a double-digit drop from 2021.

The growing migrant burden in urban areas has raised questions about whether places like New York City are becoming less welcoming of immigrants.

A poll last week showed more voters in Chicago favor ending that city’s migrant sanctuary city status than want to keep it.

Biden’s gyrations on immigration have been a hallmark of his administration and his earlier political history. On his first day in the Oval Office, he unveiled a comprehensive immigration proposal that, among other things, called for a pathway to citizenship for millions of people while moving away from Trump-era enforcement measures.

Like so many other attempts at a broad solution, this one went nowhere. It’s hardly his fault entirely. Even in its more cooperative days, Congress could never advance a needed plan. With the sharpening partisanship in recent years and, for now, a speaker-less House, prospects for sweeping action seem next to none.

At times, Biden embraced Trump-like approaches to immigration, particularly on asylum.

Meanwhile, he has long oscillated over border fencing. As a senator, he voted for walls in targeted areas. While running for president, he emphatically vowed “not one more foot” of border wall would be built during his administration.

That, of course, didn’t last. Despite protests in San Diego — including from some Democratic members of Congress and the Legislature — the administration replaced aging fencing at Friendship Park with a larger Trump-style wall.

Last week, the president moved ahead with portions of the Trump wall in Texas. Biden said his hands were tied because the funding was approved before he became president. But he did waive environmental laws that, if they didn’t prevent it from being built, certainly would have delayed the project.

His administration also gave mixed messages about whether the wall would be effective. Biden was clear in saying that despite approving the project, he didn’t think border walls worked.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had a different view.

“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States,” Mayorkas said in a notice published in the Federal Register, according to The New York Times.

That, right there, is Trump’s rationale for the wall.

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