Just weeks ago, President Joe Biden signaled a messaging shift on immigration that reflects the rhetoric many moderate Democrats have been using for months.
“If we are to advance liberty and justice, we need to secure the border and fix the immigration system,” he told Congress during his State of the Union. “We can do both.”
He went on to detail new border technology to detect drug smuggling and joint patrols with Mexico to catch human traffickers, before mentioning a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Biden struck a noticeably different tone on immigration than he did a year earlier, when he had touted a sweeping overhaul of immigration policy that would legalize millions. The change reflects a sober reality for a party that has yet to accomplish its legislative immigration goals and faces tough electoral headwinds this fall.
It also comes as moderate Democrats, especially those facing reelection, emphasize border security as a key part of their immigration message.
“We've got a crisis on the southern Arizona border,” said Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. “I talk about it, because it's an issue for my state and for my constituents. And I also think it's a national security issue.”
The growing focus partly reflects the political success Republicans have had in slamming Democrats on immigration. But it also reflects Democrats’ acknowledgment that for many voters — particularly those in border regions or areas devastated by illegal drugs — a strong border is a top priority.
Speaking about border security in tandem with immigration reform is nothing new. A 2013 bipartisan plan that passed the Senate but never got a House vote would have carved out a pathway to citizenship while adding tens of thousands of new Border Patrol agents.
And as recently as 2018, there was talk of a possible agreement that would combine legalization for Dreamers with former President Donald Trump’s signature border wall.
“For most Democrats, border security has always been a part of the conversation around immigration reform,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Today, there’s still an appetite for immigration policy changes that also seek to streamline activities at the U.S.-Mexico border, which just saw its busiest year of border crossings since the government began keeping track.
Last year, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced broad legislation that would address migration increases by ramping up staffing at immigration agencies and streamlining immigration court proceedings. It also would direct the Department of Justice to prioritize removal cases involving migrants apprehended during an influx.
The bill has yet to be marked up in committee, but it has gained traction among moderate lawmakers. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who is up for reelection in the fall, added her support last month.
“New Hampshire knows firsthand how important it is to secure our border and make sure the brave border security personnel have the resources and support they need to strengthen border security, stop the flow of illegal drugs from entering our communities, and improve the vetting and screening of those entering our country,” she said.
Despite the presence of border security resources in nearly every historic attempt at immigration overhaul, Democrats noticeably left it out of their sweeping budget reconciliation plan, which would have granted a pathway to citizenship for millions and cut visa backlogs in the legal immigration system.
The reconciliation bill foundered amid opposition from moderates, and Democratic lawmakers are now eyeing a narrower version that may not include immigration at all.
That leaves an opening for some Democrats to pursue a different approach, contending that Republican solutions to illegal migration don’t address deep-seated issues in the outdated American immigration system.
“You have to talk about it as a comprehensive message — that they kind of work together,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ campaign arm. “There is no border security without immigration reform.”
Republicans have long argued that Biden’s efforts to undo stringent Trump-era immigration policies, including the expulsion of unaccompanied migrant children under the public health directive Title 42 and construction of a border wall, have encouraged illegal migration. Many scoff at Biden’s commitment to securing the border.
“We need to secure our border before it is too late,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., after Biden's speech earlier this month. “Our border is completely broken, terrorists can come across, drugs are flowing at the highest level in history.”
Although uniformly opposed to the border wall, many Democrats have backed increased resources for Border Patrol agents, who must balance traditional tasks like combating drug cartels with processing vulnerable migrants, including children, seeking asylum in the U.S.
“We need to have a border in which the law is enforced and people are treated humanely,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist and consultant with the Lone Star Project, which works to elect Democrats in Texas. “That means putting enough resources on the border.”
Angle said Democrats should paint themselves as members of the party of legitimate solutions — in contrast with a GOP that uses migration spikes to its political advantage.
“When the border is in chaos, Republicans benefit,” he said. “It's really important for Democrats to not walk into that bear trap.”
What voters want
Meanwhile, lawmakers battling for reelection are listening closely to what their constituents want — including a secure border that prevents the flow of illegal drugs.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who represents a swing district, introduced legislation last month that would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a comprehensive plan to identify, deploy and integrate emerging technologies to heighten “situational awareness” along U.S. borders.
“Our immigration system is broken, and politicians in both parties have been complicit in failing to responsibly address it for decades,” she said in a news release after the bill’s introduction. “The only way to actually deal with this issue is by working across the aisle.”
Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, another moderate Democrat seeking reelection, said during a committee hearing last month that she supports hiring more Border patrol officers. Immigrants, she said, should come to the U.S. through “lawful and orderly” channels.
“When I travel around my district I do hear from constituents who are frustrated about the ongoing crisis and the challenges we face in our southern border,” she said. “And my constituents are right to expect a secure border and right to expect a lawful immigration system that works.”
Congress recently proved it can move bipartisan border legislation that’s narrower in scope. Earlier this month, the House passed, 387-33, a bill to improve security along the U.S.-Mexico border by reclassifying a special police unit within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement so it can more effectively combat illegal activity.
Brown, of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said policies supported by both Republicans and Democrats play well with voters, especially during a time of historic partisan divides.
“The longer and more that Congress struggles to find a way forward on these things, digging in their heels on either side or using the issue is electoral fodder — the farther they are from actually moving forward on policies that will improve the situation,” she said.
“Doesn't have to be perfect, but for God's sake, do something.”