Concerns over the impending end of Title 42 are highlighting rifts among Democrats on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue as the party anticipates potential political ramifications of the policy’s termination.
Title 42, a Trump-era policy allowing immigration officials to more quickly expel asylum-seeking migrants attempting to cross the border, will expire Thursday due to the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration.
Border officials will be forced to return to regular migrant processing, a slower process that could entice hundreds of thousands of migrants camped along the border to attempt to enter the United States.
Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has led the charge for Democrats critical of the administration’s plans for the end of Title 42, most recently hitting the White House’s deployment of 1,500 active-duty troops to support border officials.
“The Biden Administration’s militarization of the border is unacceptable. There is already a humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere, and deploying military personnel only signals that migrants are a threat that require our nation’s troops to contain. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Menéndez said in a statement.
Other Democrats also took umbrage at the announcement, which they compared to former President Trump’s approach to border security.
“We condemned Trump for doing the same thing. Biden shouldn’t follow his lead and move forward with these plans,” tweeted Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.).
“Military deployment isn’t a replacement for meaningful immigration reform.”
But Menéndez also took the opportunity to pan President Biden’s overall management of border and immigration policy.
“The Administration has had over two years to plan for the eventual end of this Trump-era policy in a way that does not compromise our values as a country. I have offered them a strategic and comprehensive plan, which they have largely ignored. Trying to score political points or intimidate migrants by sending the military to the border caters to the Republican Party’s xenophobic attacks on our asylum system,” he said.
Menéndez’s broadside against the White House was not his first in recent weeks. New Jersey’s senior senator publicly said in March he suspected outgoing Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice had pitched an idea to reinstate family detention, angering the White House.
And throughout the Biden era, Menéndez has led gripes from Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) about not being consulted prior to major immigration and border announcements.
Last month, Menéndez published a regional migration proposal that would rely mainly on executive action to shift from deterrent policies, such as Title 42, to a Western Hemisphere approach to channeling migrants via legal pathways.
Weeks later, the administration unveiled a plan with a similar international focus, but which kept some deterrent elements for border enforcement, including the application of five-year bars from reentry for migrants removed at the border.
While the two plans both share a hemispheric vision and contrast starkly with a hawkish border bill proposed by Republicans in the House, that common ground has not healed the rifts caused in part by the Biden administration’s focus on deterrence over its first two years.
A Democratic congressional aide told The Hill that much of the anger against the administration stems from officials taking “far-reaching decisions” and using Trump-era deterrence policies without first consulting the CHC.
Other Democrats have been caught between the administration’s decidedly centrist approach to the border — critics have often referred to it as “Trump light” — and the progressive stance sought by Menéndez.
“Ideally, we want the White House and the head of the Senate [Foreign Relations Committee] — Bob Menéndez is a powerful person, he’s got a lot of experience, and I think the White House needs to take every step to make sure he’s informed about decisions,” said Rep. Henry Cuéllar (D-Texas).
“Yeah, ideally, they need to be on the same page.”
Some CHC members say the administration’s communication on immigration plans has improved.
“Since the CHC last raised the issue of consultation with the administration, a select group of members have had direct engagement with administration officials regarding their concerns and ideas around border and migration policies,” said a caucus member with knowledge of the group’s conversations with the administration.
And there is a diversity of thought on the administration’s plan within the CHC.
Cuéllar, for instance, lauded both the administration’s proposal to impose five-year bars on migrants, and the one to interview migrants abroad to help them find legal pathways to enter the United States.
“The administration is finally doing some things that some of us have been pushing. I know some of the progressives don’t like it, but [the administration is] doing some of the processing abroad, so [migrants] can apply from abroad to see if they qualify for asylum or not, [stationing] asylum officers inside the Border Patrol stations, agreements that they’ve done with Panama, Colombia and the U.S. to try to stop some people at the Darien Gap,” Cuéllar said.
Still, Democrats of all stripes will face pressures to align behind the administration’s plans, as the battle lines on immigration for 2024 are defined in the preamble to Title 42’s end.
“What I see the administration trying to do is recognize that we’re at a point in time where, globally as well as hemispherically, there are very large, significant flows, and we want to remain and be a country of protection and a country of immigration,” said Doris Meissner, who ran the Immigration and Naturalization Service under former President Clinton and how heads the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.
Meissner added that the real challenge for the administration is organizing those flows and creating rules “that discourage and remove people, or take some people back home who don’t qualify, whereas what the GOP bills are all trying to do is basically say, ‘These are not people who should be coming to the US. How do we stop it?'”
Fears over the end of Title 42 are beginning to make waves in the Arizona 2024 Senate race, for instance, where Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) is running for independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat.
Sinema, who left the Democratic Party in December, has not yet announced whether she’s running for reelection.
Sinema and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.) on Thursday unveiled a new version of a bill to extend Title 42-like powers for border officials, though not based on a public health law.
For his part, Gallego called on Biden and top administration officials to make transparent the details of the troop deployment to the border.
But Gallego sided with Biden’s decision, saying the deployment is “needed to alleviate some of the burdens our border communities on the frontlines are expected to face, so long as those personnel are not engaged in law enforcement activities consistent with federal law.”
In Texas, where border Democrats have often butted heads with immigration progressives as their districts bear more of the social costs of admitting large groups of migrants, there are also early signs of party unity.
Neither Cuéllar nor Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas) say they’re likely to support the House GOP proposal, which could clear the chamber on Republican votes alone.
And Cuéllar said Biden’s approach is a viable electoral platform for Democrats to win on the issue.
“Republicans are basically saying, ‘Don’t let anybody in the border. Build a border wall, and don’t let anybody in,'” Cuéllar said.
“Democrats can have the right message, that follows something like this: ‘We’re strong on border security. We want to see order at the border, but there’ll be respectful of immigrant families, the right to asylum, legitimate asylum.’ I think that resonates better with the border,” he added.
“Yes, I mean, the answer is yes, we can win that.”