© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Pro-Immigrant Voters Don’t Want Trump. Democrats Warn They May Not Want a Hard-line Biden, Either.

A Democrat told NOTUS they “don’t want people to stay home because we have a president who said one thing four years ago and is doing the other four years later.”

Delia Ramirez
Rep. Delia Ramirez is among the Democrats who thinks President Joe Biden should change his messaging on immigration. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Some Democrats and advocates are worried that President Joe Biden is hurting himself with voters who care deeply about immigrant rights by leaning too heavily into border security.

With the election closing in, lawmakers and immigrant rights advocates fear Biden is running out of time to reassure voters concerned about his crackdown on the border. The president is expected to soon announce new measures to protect some undocumented immigrants as a follow-up on the asylum restrictions that incensed immigrant advocacy groups.

And they had better be good in order to present a clear contrast with former President Donald Trump, Democrats warned.

“It’s really difficult for me to tell someone, ‘I’m going to keep promising you and begging you to vote for someone’ and then I can’t deliver,” Rep. Delia Ramirez told NOTUS. “My own credibility is on the line in this moment.”

She and other lawmakers and pro-immigrant advocates told NOTUS the Biden administration has a messaging problem on the border. Faced with broad public concern about crossings and Republicans hammering on the issue, they know Biden needs to do something — but they also worry his policy decisions and messaging will make it difficult to rally their base.

“No one wants Donald Trump to be elected. That is absolutely clear,” Ramirez said. “But we also don’t want people to stay home because we have a president who said one thing four years ago and is doing the other four years later.”

Biden’s first campaign did a lot to propose an alternative to Trump, whose policies on child separation and detention drew intense scrutiny. Biden pledged in 2020 to end many of Trump’s policies on day one. But as unauthorized border crossings crept up and polling showed voters worried about immigration, the administration took a turn, with some comparing the new asylum restrictions to Trump’s Title 42 expulsion policy.

The political calculus behind this shift is clear, even if the policy is bad, Douglas Rivlin, senior director of communications for the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, said.

“The American people want our politicians to do something, and a lot of them are kind of open to whatever it is, as long as somebody’s doing something,” Rivlin said. “That’s why you see in some of these polls strong support for even crazy ideas, like mass deportation.”

He said the administration doing nothing is dangerous because it creates a scenario where people will accept any solution. But that doesn’t mean he thinks Biden is owning potential solutions well.

“I think the policy that Biden put forward was not the right one either from a politics or policy standpoint. I think he can play the politics much better if he’s presenting a bigger vision than just the border,” Rivlin said.

Other pro-immigrant lawmakers and activists agree the administration needs to do a better job advocating for its policies.

“I think there is just a certain reality when it comes to the case that needs to be made to the public,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said. “We have to make a case to the public that the best way of bringing the situation at the border under control is to actually have a functioning documentation process.”

That includes emphasizing that immigration is a complex issue. Biden has a host of other immigration policy positions, including launching the CBP One app, allowing DACA recipients to receive Obamacare and starting a program to allow more refugees from some countries into the U.S. each month. Advocates said he should talk about them rather than letting Republicans force him into focusing on the border.

“One of the big arguments that we make regularly to the administration is that you cannot just talk about the border,” said Andrea Flores, VP for immigration policy and campaigns at FWD.us, a bipartisan organization that advocates for immigration reforms.

Some aren’t putting the blame solely on Biden. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Biden reelection campaign co-chair who represents El Paso, said she was unhappy with the recent asylum order but even more so with her colleagues.

“I released a statement saying that I was disappointed,” she said. “But I also in my statement provided context, because my more profound disappointment is with the Congress, which has failed to act.”

“The colleagues on my side of the aisle that hate executive orders like this, my message to them is, ‘We need to pass a compromise piece of legislation in order to avert this issue,’ and to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, who keep complaining about the border, ‘Come to the table,’ ” she said.

Biden has some wins on immigration, from the Democrats’ perspective — but they want him to get more of them.

“President Biden has taken some important, positive steps to protect the immigrant community, and I hope that he does even more,” Rep. Greg Casar said. “One, because it’s morally the right thing to do, and second, because it’ll give us more to talk about on the campaign trail.”

Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.