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Trump, Biden propel migrants to forefront of ‘contentious’ race

GOP lawmakers say former president urged them to turn up heat on immigration

Donald Trump exits a meeting with Senate Republicans hours after a separate session with House Republicans on Capitol Hill on June 14.
Donald Trump exits a meeting with Senate Republicans hours after a separate session with House Republicans on Capitol Hill on June 14. (Allison Bailey/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images)

Republican lawmakers who met privately with Donald Trump last week said the former president was eager for them to turn up the heat on President Joe Biden and Democrats about illegal immigration.

Biden countered this week with his second immigration-themed executive action in 14 days, aiming to assuage his progressive base and solidifying the hot-button issue as one that will drive the general election campaign for months to come.

Biden was all smiles Tuesday as he greeted guests in the East Room of the White House to announce new efforts to help some noncitizen spouses and children of U.S. citizens secure lawful permanent residency without leaving the country. He chided Trump for “playing on” the deportation fears of thousands of migrants who have been in the United States illegally for decades while, in the president’s words, contributing to America economically and culturally.

“Today is a good day,” Biden said a few hours after a top Trump campaign surrogate accused him of establishing a “mass amnesty plan.”

Biden’s new programs would “undoubtedly lead to a greater surge in migrant crime, cost taxpayers millions of dollars they cannot afford, overwhelm public services, and steal Social Security and Medicare benefits from American seniors to fund benefits for illegals,” Trump campaign national press secretary Karoline Leavitt said in a Tuesday statement.

That back-and-forth came five days after House Republicans streamed out of the Capitol Hill Club onto a steamy C Street Southeast to rave about their party’s presumptive nominee and his vows to shutter the roughly 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexico border on the first day of a possible second term.

Polls suggest most voters trust Trump more to handle the border and immigration. For instance, a survey conducted last month by Decision Desk HQ and News Nation found 46 percent of registered voters trust Trump more. Twenty-six percent had more faith in Biden, and 13 percent said they were not sure. But immigration was not the most pressing matter for most Americans in another poll. A Monmouth University survey released Thursday found it was a top issue for just 4 percent of adults nationwide. Five issues ranked higher, with inflation leading at 24 percent.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., considered a potential Trump running mate, told reporters that the presumptive GOP nominee is “committed to integrating how he’s going to address border security” into helping House candidates win in November. This would be so they could enact a conservative immigration bill next year that likely would closely resemble a House-passed bill crafted by Republicans known as H.R. 2. The bill did not advance in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats but could flip in November.

“He’s been clear about that and what he would do. You don’t have to look any further than what he did in his first term, in terms of executive actions that are easily taken to secure the border,” Donalds said last week. “We’ve already passed our legislation, so I fully anticipate that to come back next year — and hopefully we have a much more favorable Senate.

“We can get some meaningful legislation signed into law that protects our sovereignty, protects the American people, and actually, in a lot of respects, takes some pressure off our immigration system,” he added. “So that people who go through the legal pathway [to U.S. citizenship] … can come into our country and become a fabric of America.”

Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., one of 17 House Republicans elected last cycle in districts Biden also won, was asked if he came away feeling more aligned with Trump.

“I think the president was very clear about the issues impacting the American people. We have to deal with our southern border,” he said. “We have to secure the border. We have to stop this massive [migrant] influx.

“So you have a crisis there,” he said. “The [former] president talked extensively about that.”

Biden on June 4 signed an executive order that would halt asylum claim processing when migrant interactions with federal law enforcement breach 2,500 in a day.

White House and Biden-Harris campaign aides said that action was required after congressional Republicans blocked a bipartisan Senate immigration package at Trump’s behest.

“The American people demand solutions to fix our broken immigration system, but at every step of the way, Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans have made clear they only want chaos and partisan politics as usual,” Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a June 4 statement.

“Every American should know that Trump proudly killed the strongest bipartisan border bill in a generation — siding with fentanyl traffickers over the Border Patrol and our security,” he added. “President Biden knows being president is not about theater.”

Biden used the East Room event on Tuesday to announce the program to help spouses and children, along with another aimed at speeding work visas for some recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and other so-called Dreamers.

Team Biden appeared eager to thread an election-year needle by appearing to issue a crackdown order on June 4 aimed at independent voters, followed by an empathetic one this week for progressives.

‘A lifetime away’

A major aspect of the president’s reelection pitch is a warning about things Trump has said he would do in second term.

“Republicans walked away from the deal [for] the most pathetic and petty of reasons: Donald Trump got on the phone, literally, and started — and the press can confirm this — and calling them, calling [Republican] senators, saying, ‘Don’t. Don’t go ahead and do this. Don’t support this legislation that had bipartisan support,’” Biden said Tuesday.

“He said it … would hurt him politically and help me instead,” he added. “So much for Republicans caring about the border.”

Trump’s insistence GOP senators scuttle the border package is why, Biden said, “as president, I had to take these actions,” adding: “Every nation must secure its border. It’s just that simple. And if Trump and the Republicans wouldn’t do it working with me, then I would do it on my own. And I did.”

But GOP lawmakers last week said they would present voters a question: Why did it take Biden three years to act — and why five months before Election Day?

Echoing Biden, some congressional Democrats said his campaign’s best bet to counter Republicans’ border attacks is to keep reminding voters about the president’s record. He and congressional Democrats also are betting big that voters will prefer Biden’s style over Trump’s.

“Well, when Americans face the choice between Joe Biden and the alternative, I think a lot of the members of those different groups will realize what’s at stake and make the right choice,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a brief interview about multiple groups that typically vote Democratic — but are upset with Biden.

“It’s not a question of putting the blocks back together or rethreading the [2020] quilt. It’s just simply showing the truth about what the alternative is,” Blumenthal added.

“I think that the election, for most people, is still a lifetime away. They’re focusing on the summer, doctor’s appointments, the kids are out of school,” he said. “But at the same time, I would emphasize it’s going to be a close and contentious election. And we cannot give an inch to complacency.”

Immigration is among the list of issues on which Biden and Trump are expected to spar during their first 2024 debate on June 27.