As President Joe Biden‘s border headache drags on, Democrats have begun to publicly and privately mull a worrying scenario: Donald Trump, no longer content with fuming at Mar-a-Lago, would begin his political comeback by declaring he was “right” on immigration as the administration fails to get a handle on the situation.
The serious challenge at the border involves the lives of children, teen migrants and families, many displaced by violence in their home country, who are seeking asylum in the United States. A record number of unaccompanied children crossed the border in March, eclipsing the previous record in May 2019.
But the White House, after an early bumbling of its messaging, has put a laser focus on blaming the Trump administration for gutting the asylum system. The complaints include a lack of facilities and beds ahead of the yearly increase in migration that comes with the warmer weather, effectively leaving a ticking time bomb for the incoming administration.
But Democrats fear a worsening border situation could play into the hands of Trump and his allies, effectively undercutting the moral argument the party made in furiously opposing his zero tolerance approach to immigration.
Trump, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas said, “revealed his cold inhumanity” in the way he handled asylum seekers and immigrants, but he and the Republican Party “thrive on false equivalencies.”
“The danger for Democrats, if we don’t fix this thing, is you give them an opening to create a powerful false equivalency,” he told Newsweek.
That false equivalency would be Trump justifying his controversial enforcement strategies that punished immigrants by separating children from their parents, saying they were necessary. Biden, who campaigned on a humane approach to immigration, is unwilling to do what Trump did and American laws say migrants may legally present themselves and make their case for asylum.
Democrats who spoke with Newsweek said they are aware perception sometimes matters more than reality, but there is evidence Americans are paying attention to the border more, and they don’t exactly like what they see.
A Morning Consult poll from late March found that 40 percent of voters said they had seen, read or heard “a lot” about the influx of kids at the border. An Associated Press poll on Monday found that 40 percent of Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of the arriving children, 24 percent approved and 35 percent neither approved nor disapproved.
From church to the grocery store, Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas said, he was hearing complaints and concerns from fellow Democrats this past Sunday.
“Democrats I know were saying, ‘Hey, we have to do a better job at the border as Democrats,'” he said. Cuellar added that he was “worried” about losing independent voters, who are often the deciding factor in who wins or loses elections, and agreed that Trump and his allies will seek to “weaponize” the border as a distraction.
“Certainly, I’ve said we as Democrats need to be careful about this issue because it’s taken away from all the good work President Biden has done on vaccines. He’s doing a great job, we all worked hard on the relief package…but this is taking away from our message,” Cuellar said.
That’s why the simple but so far elusive advice he shared with the White House was: “Let’s handle this quickly and move on.”
Chuck Coughlin, who served as a campaign manager and adviser for former GOP Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona and is the president of HighGround, was one of the first whose polling showed immigration had slipped as a campaign issue in the state during the presidential race, as Newsweek reported at the time. But now, he said, that has changed, creating an opening for Trump and his allies like former adviser Stephen Miller.
“Immigration is the number one issue again in the electorate. It hasn’t been there for several years,” he said, providing a first look at a poll that will be released Thursday. “It’s back particularly among older voters, 50 and older.”
Despite the ongoing pandemic, the poll shows 62 percent of Republicans say their top priority is immigration, while 41 percent of “party not designated” voters said it was their top issue. PND voters are traditionally former members of a party. Coughlin counts himself among those voters who did not want to be held hostage by the current Republican Party anymore, he said. He noted that in Arizona PND voters participate at much higher rates than independents, and he forecasts that during the 2022 midterms, they will double independents in the state’s electorate.
Coughlin stressed that he does not agree with the argument Trump and his allies could make but said it would be a politically straightforward one: That when Trump left office, the citizens of this country were protected from illegal immigration. Trump had it under control, but “now they’re letting everyone in.”
“It will be effective with older voters, who are already leery of the amount of change Biden and progressive Democrats are bringing to the table,” Coughlin said.
But others argue Republicans are seizing on immigration precisely because Biden has had a successful start to his presidency, from a politically popular coronavirus relief package to an infrastructure package that is expected to move slowly but has a chance of making it through Congress as well. They say economists believe the economy will eventually be doing well, so Republicans have to make an argument why Americans are worse off, and immigration is their best hope.
Democrats stressed that migration patterns to the United States are cyclical and that every president has to deal with this because of existing root issues in Central America. Some also said that the 2020 election proved that Trump’s appeals don’t have the selling power they used to.
“I’m sure if Trump wants to run again he will try to use fear-mongering tactics to make up facts and make it seem like he was better on immigration than what we all remember,” said Arizona-based Democratic lawyer Roy Herrera. “But I don’t know if that will work. Some segment of the population will listen to him, but not the majority. He’s lost a lot of credibility.”