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Ahead of midterms, Democrats feel pressure to pass citizenship

Immigration could be a political boon, or blow, for them

Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the House Democrats whom Republicans have targeted for defeat in 2022, has warned the White House that high numbers of border crossings are hurting House Democrats’ reelection chances.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the House Democrats whom Republicans have targeted for defeat in 2022, has warned the White House that high numbers of border crossings are hurting House Democrats’ reelection chances. (Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats have pinned their hopes on passing a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants through the budget reconciliation process, which would allow them to deliver long-promised revisions to the immigration system on a party-line vote.

If they succeed, analysts say it could provide the party with a critical victory to motivate voters ahead of next year’s contentious midterm races, in which Republicans are poised to hammer Democratic candidates, particularly those in border districts, on the Biden administration’s perceived failings at the border.

“There’s some incredible opportunities for Democrats heading in the midterms if they can actually point to some successes and things that voters have been looking for for a long time,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of Immigration Hub and former policy adviser to then-Sen. Kamala Harris.

“If President Biden and Democrats can actually deliver on citizenship, I do think this is going to be incredibly galvanizing for the base and for the Latinos, and it’s going to resonate with moderates,” he added.

But it’s a big if. And now, with control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, Democrats will likely bear the brunt of the political consequences with voters and advocates in 2022 if they fail to deliver on citizenship — all while continuing to take constant beatings from Republicans on rising migration levels at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democrats have hedged their bets on being able to advance their vision for the immigration system through the budget reconciliation process, which allows measures to pass with a filibuster-proof majority vote.

However, it remains to be seen whether those provisions will be permitted by Senate rules, which allow only measures that directly affect the federal budget to be passed through reconciliation.

The stakes of that ultimate determination are high. Top senators involved in the process, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., have acknowledged that without reconciliation, measures creating a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented population have slim chances of becoming law.

A potential failure on the part of Democrats to fulfill their immigration promises could deliver a particularly severe blow to House candidates in border districts already facing an onslaught of partisan attacks on the Biden administration’s ability to keep a migrant influx under control.

‘An absolute party killer’

One Republican strategist who works on House races said the party plans to hit Democrats hard on the border during the campaign, pointing to polls showing disapproval of the Biden administration’s approach to migration to the U.S.-Mexico border.

A poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, published in April, found that just 24 percent of adults in the U.S. approved of the way the administration has handled migrant children arriving at the border without their parents.

Accordingly, more than a dozen Democrats in border states have been targeted for defeat next year by the National Republican Congressional Committee, including five in Texas, which has emerged as a key battleground state.

In June, former President Donald Trump capitalized on the issue at a Texas rally, slamming Biden’s immigration policies in front of an incomplete portion of the border wall.

“They have telegraphed that it’s going to be a big issue on the political side from the Republicans against Democrats,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a targeted Democrat whose Texas district includes Laredo.

Cuellar has warned the White House that high numbers of border crossings are hurting reelection chances for House Democrats.

“Please understand that you’re giving Republicans weapons against us, messaging against us. They’re going to be attacking us on this issue, on ‘open borders,’ Democrats being weak on border security,” he recalled telling administration officials.

Other Texas Democrats on the NRCC’s list include Reps. Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela, who in March announced he would retire from Congress. In 2020, Vela won reelection in his heavily Latino district by 14 percentage points; in 2018, he defeated the same Republican candidate by 20 percentage points.

Neither Gonzalez nor Vela responded to requests for comment.

Colin Strother, a Texas-based strategist who has represented Democratic House candidates, called the border issue an “absolute party killer for the Democrats.”

If Democrats can’t take control of the immigration issue, they will lose the party’s slim majority in Congress, he warned.

“That’s why you see every Republican in the country — it doesn’t matter if they’re in Nebraska or Florida or Oregon or Oklahoma — they’re talking about the border, and they’re talking about what’s happening, because it’s so egregious, and it is the epitome of the stereotype Republicans want to push on Democrats,” said Strother, who previously worked for Cuellar.

Complicating matters are the rising numbers of migrants headed to the U.S-Mexico border, a policy liability for Democrats that puts them on the defensive. Nearly 189,000 migrants were encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in June, which includes some who made multiple attempts at crossing.

A Homeland Security official told a federal court in August that, based on preliminary data, border agents encountered 210,000 individuals in July, the highest number of monthly encounters in more than two decades.

Support for citizenship

Lorella Praeli, co-president of advocacy group Community Change Action, said legislation creating a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented population is “not really an option” but, rather, “a must.”

“It is our job to ensure that every elected official, especially Democrats this year, understands that voters will judge them on whether or not they delivered, not on whether or not they tried,” she said.

Praeli’s remarks reflect years of frustration on the part of advocates and undocumented immigrants themselves, who have watched Democrats promise — and fail — to pass such revisions to the immigration system for years.

In 2013, a bipartisan group of senators passed citizenship legislation in the upper chamber, only to watch the bill die without so much as a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

Since then, codifying relief for undocumented immigrants, particularly those brought to the U.S. as children, often known as Dreamers, has become increasingly popular with voters.

According to a poll released July 27 by progressive polling firm Data for Progress, 70 percent of the more than 1,200 voters polled said they would somewhat or strongly support creating a path to citizenship, including just over half of Republicans polled.

“We know for sure that legalization is enormously popular with voters, and one thing that is definitely enormously popular with voters is action,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, deputy vice president of UnidosUS.

If Democrats are able to take the offensive and pass a legalization measure, “that will play well for folks who are part of actually delivering a solution that voters have long wanted in the midterms,” Martinez de Castro said.

Democrats also need to hone their messaging and clearly “articulate their vision” for the immigration system, she said. “Otherwise, there’s a vacuum left behind that can be filled with the campaign disinformation that many Republicans are sowing.”

Gonzales described a “twofold strategy” for Democrats when batting away Republican digs about the southwest border during the campaign.

“Democrats have to not only respond to these attacks, but they need to tell voters again what their vision is, what policies they stand for, that they also believe the system doesn’t work, so here are the things they’re going to do to actually fix it and make it better,” he said.  

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