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Democrats Are Talking Tough on Immigration. Progressives Are Worried.

They say Tom Suozzi’s win shouldn’t redefine the playbook for Democrats.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Progressives are cautioning the party from going too far. Andrew Harnik/AP

As Democrats take a rightward shift on immigration, progressives warned that the tough rhetoric that may have worked for Tom Suozzi in New York’s special election Tuesday won’t necessarily work nationwide.

“It’s something we have to be cautious about,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told NOTUS when asked about the messaging shift. “We shouldn’t be afraid. Immigration is popular in this country. … We shouldn’t be afraid of our values.”

Suozzi’s stances on immigration and the border were widely credited with his victory. Early Wednesday, Sen. Chris Murphy circulated a memo to Democrats arguing that Republicans had presented Democrats with “a unique, unprecedented opening to go on the offensive on border security and immigration.” Murphy argued that too many in the party were stuck in a “defensive crouch” on the border and that while Democrats’ main priority on immigration — a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people — was still a priority, Suozzi’s election showed it needed to be framed “inside a message that prioritizes strong and fair border policies.”

And he’s not the only Democrat who thinks that way. Rep. Ritchie Torres called Suozzi’s campaign a “rare case in which Democrats out-messaged the Republicans.”

“If we refuse to define ourselves, Republicans are going to define us in the public mind,” he told NOTUS.

Democrats have already started trying to shift the narrative. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is making ad buys against Republicans who voted down the bipartisan immigration bill, and advocacy groups have noticed a marked shift in the party. Biden also has turned increasingly rightward in his rhetoric, recently saying he would “shut down” the southern border.

But progressives don’t want the party to go too far.

Rep. Greg Casar said the party “needs to recapture the ideal that I believe most Americans believe, which is that immigration is good.”

Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries pushed back on the idea that Suozzi was successful only because his immigration messaging took on a rightward lean. Instead his campaign was successful because Suozzi was “talking directly to voters about solving problems in a bipartisan, common sense fashion with respect to every issue, including at the border.”

“That’s the lesson that should be taken from the campaign to the extent that anyone wants to draw any conclusions with respect to how to connect with the voters in a given district,” Jeffries told NOTUS.

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Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who represents a border district, expressed skepticism over following Suozzi’s footsteps on messaging.

“Suozzi is not necessarily the standard bearer or the oracle about what needs to be done with immigration at the border. He’s not at the border,” Grijalva said. “He’s dealing with the consequences of a broken system.”

He said he does agree that Democrats “have to have a solution and not be shrill and stupid about a response like the Republicans have been.”

“Is it Suozzi’s solution that’s the one that we have to all carry the banner for? Not necessarily. But it certainly isn’t [Speaker Mike] Johnson’s,” he said.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, another border district representative, defended President Biden’s shift in messaging on the border, but said that some people have gone too far in their language on migrants.

“I think what you’re seeing, to be perfectly honest, is an acknowledgment that the situation has grown more challenging and inhumane, and a desire to address it,” she said. “It was no shock to me that the president shifted in order to urge Congress to address it.”

Escobar warned against letting Republicans center the conversation on the border without the traditional trade for expanded pathways to citizenship.

“We have historically always wanted additional pathways … if there was going to be more border security,” she said. “But Republicans have been very successful in pushing a border-only approach.”

Casey Murray and Tinashe Chingarande are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.