Biden administration politically tone deaf on immigration issues

Before Congress adjourned for a two-week recess, progress on a $10 billion COVID relief bill stalled. Although Republicans in the Senate signaled support for appropriations for vaccines, testing, and therapeutics, they insisted on an amendment retaining Title 42, a provision of the 1944 Public Health Act authorizing the federal government to prohibit “the introduction of persons and property to stop a contagious disease from spreading in the United States.”

Robert Redfield, President Trump’s CDC Director, applied Title 42 to immigrants at the southern border. Rochelle Walensky, his successor, recently announced that given the decline in COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and an expansion of public health facilities and protocols by Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, the policy would be respinded in late May. The Biden administration, Republicans countered what declaring an end to a public health emergency on the southern border while invoking one to justify the Coronavirus relief package.

Title 42 is, by definition, a blunt instrument. The Trump administration, it’s worth noting, used it to expel 400,000 people; the Biden administration 1.2 million. And, of course, some individuals were expelled more than once. The process, which can be invoked whether or not migrants have been vaccinated, is often completed within a few hours. Those who are subject to Title 42 cannot apply for asylum. Moreover, Mexico has agreed only to accept persons expelled under Title 42 if their home country is Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.

All that said, the decision (and the timing) to terminate Title 42 demonstrate that the Biden administration, which has been plagued by infighting, is politically tone deaf on the issue of immigration.

Walensky’s announcement coincided with an acknowledgment that HHS is bracing for a “mass migration event” this spring and summer, with daily numbers rising from an already high 7,000 to as many as 18,000. Republicans are already making Title 42 — and immigration in general — a signature issue in the midterm elections. “It’s obvious Biden doesn’t have a clue about how to stop the influx of illegal immigrants and deadly drugs from pouring into the United States,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) has proclaimed. In response to the termination of Title 42, Abbott declared that Texas state troopers in riot gear would meet migrants at the border and bus them to the steps of the US Capitol, where the Biden administration would be compelled to address their needs.

The debate over Title 42 has put US Senate and House Democrats — especially those from red and purple states — on the spot. representative Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) have asked President Biden to keep Title 42 in place until encounters at the border subside. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) has said he would support a COVID relief bill if it also retained Title 42: “Why wouldn’t I?” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) tweeted that he is “strongly opposed to the administration’s decision to let Title 42 expire next month — which will only add to the strain on our broken immigration system.” Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), and Catherine Cortez Masto (DN.M.), whose re-election prospects are uncertain, have declined to say if they will support legislation to retain Title 42. “There’s going to be a surge at the southern border,” Cortez Masto has added, in a shot across Biden’s bow. “There should be a plan and I’ve been calling for it all along.”

Moreover, Biden has not adequately explained his administration’s approach to immigration to American voters. He should indicate that for decades Republicans in Congress have refused to address comprehensive immigration reform and the status of unauthorized immigrants in the United States. He should point out that building a border wall is a sound bite, not a solution to a complicated problem. And he should list the policies of his administration that, according to the Migration Policy Institute, have “had a significant impact on humanitarian protection, immigration enforcement, and legal immigration”: greatly reducing the number of unauthorized immigrants subject to arrest, detention and removal ; ending the separation of parents and children and the use of Title 42 to expel unaccompanied children; lifting some barriers to entry and benefits; extending eligibility for temporary protection to an additional 430,000 individuals; raising the refugee resettlement ceiling to 125,000; and rescinding travel bans on nationals from 13 countries.

Most of all, Biden should aggressively refute allegations that he favors open borders. He should expose slurs on immigrants as inaccurate, unjust, and un-American.

Alas, in marked contrast to Donald J. Trump, Biden doesn’t always recognize that you can’t make music if you don’t blow your own horn. And you allow your adversaries to choose the tunes.

More than half — 55 percent — of Americans now disapprove of Biden’s handling of immigration. Turning their assessments around presents a daunting challenge. With the midterms less than seven months away, the clock is ticking.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

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