Skip to content

The best politics on immigration is to forget about politics

Democrats, including progressives, should embrace this border bill

U.S. law enforcement officers guard migrants that crossed into Shelby Park as they wait to be picked up for processing on Feb. 4 in Eagle Pass, Texas.
U.S. law enforcement officers guard migrants that crossed into Shelby Park as they wait to be picked up for processing on Feb. 4 in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Michael Gonzalez/Getty Images)

The Senate immigration bill, finally released just in time to roil Congress on Sunday night, offers more political angles than a high-school trigonometry textbook.

The authors of the legislation — Oklahoma conservative Republican Jim Lankford, Arizona’s mercurial independent Kyrsten Sinema and Connecticut liberal Democrat Chris Murphy — deserve plaudits for their plucky determination and their old-fashioned belief in compromise.

During a presidential election year, almost all reactions in Washington are heavily tinged with self-interest. And the one certainty surrounding the compromise legislation is that all political calculations could be wrong.

The risks for Senate supporters of the immigration legislation — including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — are both short- and long-term.

In the weeks ahead, it would be embarrassing for all of them if the bill collapses in the Senate, proving that the center cannot hold when challenged by a ragtag alliance of right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats.

But there is another hazard, even if the legislation miraculously surmounts the hurdles in both the Senate and the House, where Speaker Mike Johnson says “dead on arrival” with the regularity of a metronome. What if it becomes apparent in a year or two that the first major immigration legislation in this century didn’t work?

It is possible that the border crisis — triggered by climate change, poverty and political instability in Central America — is simply too great to be staunched by the proposed piecemeal reforms such as tightening the rules for amnesty and giving the president temporary authority to close the border in certain circumstances.

If this effort fails to pass or fails to bring order to the border, it is hard to imagine that other legislators would again invest their time and reputations in trying to craft compromise legislation.

President Joe Biden also is taking a risk by breaking with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which already has been enraged over Gaza, by supporting an enforcement-first immigration bill that does nothing to provide a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to this country as children by parents who illegally crossed the border.

The logic powering Biden’s gamble is that the legislation would give him the opportunity to take a tough-guy stance on immigration, which is politically his most vulnerable issue. As the president recently declared at a political dinner in South Carolina, “If that bill were the law today, I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly.”

If GOP opposition in the House brings down the bill, or the Senate unravels over the legislation, Biden could claim Republicans are the obstructionists sowing chaos at the border.

But the risk for the White House is that the Republicans-are-to-blame argument will be blurred by GOP incendiary tactics on immigration and voter disinterest in the nuances of what actually happens on Capitol Hill. In this case, the Democrats would have a strong message, but a difficult challenge in delivering it to swing voters.

Former President Donald Trump, the GOP presidential front-runner, has already laid down his markers when he opposed the legislation sight unseen.

But as he appears poised to again coast to the nomination, Trump’s comments on immigration have grown more extreme — and conspiratorial. In a Fox News interview Sunday, Trump peddled the evidence-free theory that the Chinese Communist Party is the puppet master behind the waves of asylum-seekers at the Mexican border.

The danger for Trump — and it is the most likely factor to cost him the election – lies in the whole package of his hysterical claims and outright lies. When even Nikki Haley, once his United Nations ambassador, calls Trump “totally unhinged,” the former president faces a mental stability issue that transcends immigration.

But would-be Trump clones like GOP Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Mike Lee of Utah face their own hazards. The challenge for them is simple: How many times can you scream “amnesty” before you lose your last remaining shards of credibility?

It is hard to see how these Republicans — who refuse to accept a partial Biden surrender on the border — gain new supporters by further demagoguing the immigration issue. Without Trump’s talents as a disruptive entertainer, these anti-immigration Republicans come across as merely disruptive.

A few Democrats, like California Sen. Alex Padilla, quickly announced their opposition to the compromise legislation on Sunday night. Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the House Progressive Caucus, issued a statement denouncing Biden and Senate Democrats for falling into a trap set by “MAGA Republicans.”

For these purist Democrats, the risk lies in not understanding the political lessons of the 1980s. That was the Ronald Reagan-dominated decade in which Democrats suffered three landslide elections for president.

As Bill Clinton grasped in 1992, Democrats were perceived as being on the wrong side of three divisive issues exploited by the GOP: welfare, crime and the deficit. Until the Democrats could neutralize those issues, which became a major focus of the Clinton presidency, they would go into every election as the underdog.

The polling numbers on immigration are bleak for the Democrats. An Economist/YouGov poll, conducted at the end of January, found that 59 percent of votes disapproved of Biden’s handling of immigration, which was the president’s worst issue. With the threat looming of a Trump return to the White House, it is hard to imagine a route to citizenship for the Dreamers if Biden loses in November.

Immigration is such a minefield that there is no politically safe route for anyone in Congress and the White House. With nothing guaranteed, the best course, in my view, is to embrace the compromise legislation and let the political chips fall where they may.

Walter Shapiro is a staff writer for The New Republic and a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is a veteran of USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post.

Recent Stories

Greatest Generation Coin will help preserve World War II Memorial for future generations

Lawmakers press to avoid funding pitfall for public defenders

Supreme Court sounds skeptical of cross-state air pollution rule

Another year, another disaster aid gap as funding deadline nears

Tall order for lawmakers to finish spending bills next week

Capitol Ink | It’s gotta be the shoes