As the border heats up, Dems fracture over a migration solution

There’s a deep ideological split in the party as Title 42 expires, with some demanding a quick border solution and others glad to be rid of the Trump-era policy.

Sen. Sherrod Brown speaks on a telephone.

Sherrod Brown is a stalwart progressive who doesn’t often partner with the likes of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

On the hot-button issue of immigration, though, the Ohio Democrat is siding with his caucuses’ two most famous centrists.

As the Biden administration deals with the expiration of its pandemic-era power to expel migrants at the southern border, Brown is signing onto a moderate proposal to extend that authority for two more years. Though he wants to see comprehensive immigration reform enacted, Brown said that “I don’t think you can get something comprehensive now, under the pressure of what’s happening at the border.”

“It’s clear to me presidents of both parties have failed on this. And we need to send more resources to the border,” Brown said in an interview. “We need two more years to get this right.”

Ten years — a lifetime in Washington — have passed since every Senate Democrat linked arms to back comprehensive immigration reform. Now, as the Covid-related border restrictions expired overnight, the party is sharply divided on an issue that’s at the forefront of the toughest Senate races in the country.

In one camp there’s Manchin, Brown, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and the Independent Sinema, all incumbents in red and purple states where border security fuels GOP attacks nearly every election cycle. While the Democratic Senate shows few signs of quick movement, they say immediate action is needed to deal with the influx of migrants expected at the U.S.-Mexico border as President Joe Biden warns of a “chaotic” transition from the expiring border policy.

Then there are Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who argue that the time for the administration’s so-called Title 42 authority has come and gone. They aren’t shy about smacking down their Democratic colleagues’ proposal.

Luján went so far as to call it “something that was put in place by the previous administration by Stephen Miller,” the hardline Donald Trump adviser known for pushing immigration restrictions.

“He does not have a good track record of developing respectful programs for the treatment of anybody. Generally, anything that he touches is poison,” said Luján, who said he would oppose the centrist proposal if it came up for a vote.

It all adds up to low expectations that the Senate Democratic majority can quickly bring anything to the floor to counter the House Republican border bill that passed narrowly on Thursday, which would hire and train 22,000 Border Patrol agents and finish the construction of a southern border wall. That’s because Democrats are nowhere near consensus on how to handle sky-high border crossings of undocumented people.

Across the spectrum, Democrats say they’re aware of the political implications of Title 42 expiring and the humanitarian crisis likely to follow. But interviews with more than a dozen Democratic senators revealed mixed messages about any bipartisan solutions that could address the issue.

Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he plans to propose his own bill to address the expiration of Title 42, but his office hasn’t released any details and he was unsure Thursday about when he would introduce it. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is working with Durbin on that legislation.

Some are antsy for any action at all.

“This is ridiculous,” Manchin said in an interview. “I’ve signed on to the bill that I can sign on to, that I believe in, and I think there’s a lot that needs to be done. Whatever moves, I’m happy.”

The tension within the Democratic Party may be boiling over, but it’s been simmering for months. A year ago, a small bipartisan group introduced legislation that would have required a detailed plan from the administration if the border restrictions were lifted. Sinema, Manchin and Tester, as well as Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), endorsed that bill.

Then Sinema and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) forced a vote on a border security amendment in December that won the support of nine Democratic caucus members, including Brown, Manchin, Sinema, Tester and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) — another incumbent up in 2024. It was yet another sign of rising discontent within the party over the border.

Now Sinema and Tillis are pressing legislation that would grant a temporary two-year authority to expel migrants from the U.S., similar to what is currently allowed under Title 42. Yet, so far, only a handful of senators have signed on to the legislation. Tester said he was not sure if it would get a floor vote.

“This applies to people who are crossing the border illegally. They’re breaking the law. Have them do it the legal way: Go through the courts. Just don’t go crossing the river,” said Tester. He still supports comprehensive immigration reform, though he added that it “ain’t gonna happen in the next six months.”

For many other Democrats, extending pandemic-imposed limits is the wrong way to control the border. They argue that the expulsion authority blocked legal pathways for migrants to seek asylum and as a result, it amounted to a human rights violation.

“It’s what appears to be a very simple solution to a very difficult question,” said Menendez, who opposes anything resembling a restoration of Title 42. “Nobody wants to deal with the real causes of why we have people coming to the southern border.”

While the Biden administration has taken steps to address what is expected to be huge influx of migrants after the Thursday expiration, Congress is the only institution that can fully tackle immigration reform.

“Congress is going to have a role here, because the situation at the border is much different than it has been historically,” Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said in an interview. “If we restrict our role to beating up on whoever the Homeland Security Director is at the time, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Except anyone paying attention to the past decade knows that getting an immigration bill through Congress resembles the endless boulder-pushing in the ancient myth of Sisyphus. The Senate’s so-called “Gang of Eight” bill never got a House vote in 2013, and despite occasional bipartisan conversations, the chamber has not made much progress on another immigration bill over the past decade.

With that in mind, it’s hard for members of both parties to imagine a short-term move to stanch the flow of people over the border in the coming weeks.

“The chance that we could move something to regular order on the short timeline we have to work here is pretty unrealistic. These are all things the administration can fix without having to get authorities,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican.

And there’s plenty of pressure from Biden’s own party to step things up, from progressive Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) to Sinema, the centrist he’s trying to oust. The independent Arizonan said on Thursday that it’s “frustrating” for lawmakers to observe what she called a “willful failure to prepare for the end of Title 42.”

“My state bears the brunt of the crisis that is coming. That is fundamentally unfair. And I don’t believe that that is an appropriate way to seek to spur action on the part of Congress,” she said.