President Joe Biden talks with U.S. Border Patrol agents as they stand along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso Texas, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

While you were busy munching popcorn and watching the Republican-on-Republican violence on the House floor last week, Democrats began turning on each other. At issue is how to handle the enormous influx of Latin American migrants. The United States experienced a record 2.8 million undocumented immigrant border crossings in fiscal year 2022, shattering the previous record of 1.7 million. Republicans have long reacted hysterically to these numbers, but now Democrats are increasingly worried.

On January 3, Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, announced plans to deal with the surge of Venezuelan migrants into Denver—about 4,000 in the past month—by busing them to New York City, Chicago, and elsewhere. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot sharply criticized Polis for what she said was emulating the behavior of Republican governors in Texas, Florida, and Arizona: “It is simply inhumane for any governor, whether Republican or Democrat, to address this challenge by giving these poor, traumatized migrants a one-way ticket out of town and washing their hands of the matter at our literal and figurative expense.” New York City Mayor Eric Adams, in response, implicitly criticized President Joe Biden, saying that “this is just unfair for local governments to have to take on this national obligation.” Polis countered that unlike “actions other states have taken,” he is only sending migrants to their own “desired final destination,” estimating that 70 percent of the Denver arrivals are not planning to stay.

On January 5, Biden announced executive actions to deal with the flood of migrants. The first would increase the number of Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan immigrants permitted to enter the U.S. if they have a sponsor providing financial support. Another would restrict the flow of unsponsored migrants using Title 42 public health emergency powers that allow the Border Patrol to send anyone illegally crossing the southern border back to Mexico without the opportunity of an asylum hearing. Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, fired off a blistering statement accusing Biden of expanding “a disastrous and inhumane relic of the Trump administration’s racist immigration agenda.” (The Foreign Relations Committee chair also joined three other senators in a separate statement expressing similar views with slightly more tempered language.) Over in the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus deemed the White House proposal “unacceptable” because “seeking asylum is a legal right,” and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus complained to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about the lack of advance consultation. (Although one CHC member from the Texas border, Representative Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat, who is supportive of Title 42, said he is “appreciative of the new measures that were just announced” by Biden.)

After the exhausting effort to confirm Kevin McCarthy as the House speaker, Republicans need to find their political footing, and the migrant influx is a fat target. According to the exit polls following the 2022 midterm elections, voters give Republicans a slight advantage over which party can best handle immigration. And Democrats, who have been in striking array since the midterm election, have begun to splinter over a border plan. How can Democrats get on the same page and bring the American people along?

The biggest challenge is updating and articulating their core principles, unifying themselves, and communicating their agenda to voters. Over the past two decades, Democrats have coalesced around immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in America. Still, the debate over what to do with immigrants already here doesn’t address what to do with the increasing number of immigrants trying to come here. Republicans, meanwhile, have moved away from the welcoming policies of the Reagan-Bush era towards brazen cruelty: family separation and border wall construction policies of the Donald Trump administration and the veritable kidnapping schemes of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Democrats start by being more in sync with public opinion than Republicans on immigration. For example, several years of Quinnipiac University polling shows that well over 60 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship for the undocumented. But the border strains of the past year appear to be strengthening the Republican position. According to NPR/Ipsos polling, a majority used to oppose a border wall, but now a plurality of 46 percent support it. And 54 percent believe it is “somewhat” or “completely true” that “the U.S. is experiencing an invasion at the southern border.” Democrats shouldn’t shed their belief in a multicultural America, but to avoid a further rise in support for bigoted policies, they also need to call for immigration that is legal, orderly, and committed to managing the flood of migrants in a way that is beneficial to America.

Here’s the conundrum. When a large group of people shows up unexpectedly, providing immediate food, shelter, education, and work presents a massive strain on municipalities with limited resources. At the same time, America is experiencing a protracted labor shortage, with 10.5 million job openings and 5.7 million unemployed job seekers; a great way to alleviate that problem is for the nation to welcome immigrant workers. It’s telling that in southwest Florida, which is rebuilding after last year’s hurricane and in need of roofers, plumbers, and an army of workers, DeSantis hasn’t exactly been checking for IDs.

In Canada, which has a similar labor shortage, the largest political parties are not at ideological odds over immigration. The governing Liberals, their coalition partners the New Democrats, and the opposition Conservatives all support welcoming policies. The Conservatives only complain that “the Liberals are taking credit for common-sense Conservative ideas” while charging them with mismanaging the system and causing a backlog.

The problem is not immigration in and of itself but our ability to process migrant claims and, if accepted, integrate them into our economy smoothly and humanely. Of course, anti-immigration conservatives view the problem quite differently. They want to treat the influx as a nefarious invasion. And they are having an easy time keeping media attention on the border “crisis” with the help of stunts orchestrated by Republican Governors such as DeSantis and Greg Abbott of Texas, including the staged dumps of migrants at the home of Vice President Kamala Harris on Christmas Eve and the liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard last year.

The Republicans charge Democrats with hypocrisy, celebrating immigrants until they are left on their doorsteps. But since migrants shuttled across the country by Abbott and DeSantis were treated generously by Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts, the hypocrisy barb lacks sting. However, the brewing tensions between Democrats in Denver, Chicago, and New York could soon feed into the Republicans’ preferred narrative, making it harder for Democrats to widen their collective lens and reframe the entire issue.

Another development narrowing our focus and complicating the Democrats’ strategy is the legal drama over Title 42. Oral arguments—which will center on whether the Biden administration gave proper notice and opportunity for public comment before rescinding the Trump-era policy—will be heard by the Supreme Court next month. Until then, at least, the Court kept Title 42 in place.

The public debate raging outside of the Court has a simplistic zero-sum quality. If Title 42 stays in place, the anti-immigrant forces will win; if not, the pro-immigrant forces will win. But the debate isn’t that simple. As David J. Bier of the pro-immigration, libertarian Cato Institute showed, Title 42 doesn’t do a good job of deterring border crossers: “Title 42 is a policy largely targeting single adults from Mexico and the Northern Triangle [El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras], but the number of single adults from these four countries has quadrupled alongside the increased use of Title 42—from an average of about 21,000 per month to nearly 80,000 per month in 2021 and 2022.”

While it’s easy to ship people to Mexico when you don’t have to adjudicate their asylum claims, it’s also easy for the same people to keep trying. Bier wrote, “The recidivism rate surged from about 20 percent in 2019 to 49 percent in 2022—meaning nearly half of single adults arrested under Title 42 from Mexico and the Northern Triangle were previously arrested under this policy.” Those immigrants who are choosing a try-try-again strategy rather than enduring a long wait in Mexico for their asylum claim seem to be getting results: “Under Title 42, the number of known gotaways—that is, detected crossers who were not arrested—grew from an average of about 12,500 per month in 2019 to an average of more than 50,000 in 2022.”

The Biden administration has not pleased either side of the immigration debate with its handling of Title 42. On the one hand, the whole reason why we have a Supreme Court case is that Biden announced a plan to end Title 42. Just last week, Biden pointed out that migrants under Title 42 can “try to re-enter the United States again and again, which makes the problem at the border even worse.” Nevertheless, most conservatives, as well as some moderate Democrats, argue the lifting of Title 42 will be akin to removing the proverbial finger from the leaky dike, and an even bigger flood of migration will commence.

Part of the problem is the administration’s seeming flip-flopping. In October, Biden expanded Title 42 to target Venezuelan migrants, and last week further expanded it to target Cuban, Haitian, and Nicaraguan migrants. The policy is paired with what’s known as a “parole” program to make it easier for people from those countries to apply for asylum before reaching the U.S. border. But the number of people eligible is capped at 30,000 per month, each needing an American sponsor. Frustrated immigrant advocates protest that most migrants still won’t be able to meet that bar.

The Biden position—Title 42 doesn’t really work, but we’re going to expand it anyway—may seem incoherent. But just because Title 42 doesn’t fix a broken immigration system doesn’t mean it’s useless. Yes, illegal border crossings quadrupled in the Title 42 era, but for all we know, they would octuple without it. And if the migrant influx intensifies and a bipartisan chorus of overwhelmed governors and mayors amplifies, the chaos will erode public support for compassionate immigration reform and undercut Democratic credibility.

Besides, Title 42 didn’t cause the influx. The rise in migration is driven by people fleeing authoritarian governments, violent drug cartels, and pandemic-ravaged economies.

As Bier explained, before 2021, we had almost no southern border crossings originating from countries outside Mexico and Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In 2000, only 6,271 people from outside those four countries were arrested for crossing illegally. By 2020, that number ticked up to 43,715. But in 2022, just through October, the number exploded to 947,054, with the bulk coming from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

The new sources of immigrants should, and perhaps still could, stir American pride. These escapees from broken socialistic countries see our country as a beacon of freedom. Democrats should not be shy to make the patriotic case against Republicans who have spent two generations attacking Fidel Castro and championing immigration from Cuba. For America to continue to be a bulwark against authoritarian socialism, we should welcome those who believe in the American Dream and can make the American economy even stronger. Let Republicans try to explain how they can be so worked up about socialism but have no interest in helping people run away from it.

Of course, Democrats might have difficulty tarring Republicans as hypocrites if Democratic governors and mayors keep pointing fingers at each other. The Biden administration needs to do all it can to help states and cities manage the flow of migrants and enlist as many communities as possible to do their part. The influx of undocumented migrants is both a problem and an opportunity, but the burden doesn’t fall equally, and the rewards should be spread widely.

A critical step toward treating this like a national problem was taken in the recent omnibus spending bill: $800 million in grant money for cities through FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which can help provide immediate assistance to migrants and help them get acclimated.

Biden should also use the bully pulpit to encourage additional communities to step up voluntarily. El Paso, New York, and Chicago can’t be expected to do everything. Communities need not be forced to take in large numbers of migrants. But America has plenty of city-dwellers with big hearts and hard heads—who believe in immigration and know they could use the workers. Daniel Block wrote in the Washington Monthly two years ago, arguing for more local control of resettlement, “The more places that [accept additional refugees], the higher the overall number of refugees the federal government would let in.”

Biden could also encourage interstate compacts to coordinate resettlement better and end the cruel stunts. As Khalil A. Cumberbatch and Marc A. Levin wrote in the Washington Monthly in November, “Passing the buck doesn’t move us forward. A coordinated migration system based on individual consent and matching supply and demand for labor would benefit America in the aggregate.”

Democrats can easily get on the same page when it comes to praising the economic contributions of immigrants and supporting better federal coordination between states and cities. They can’t when it comes to Title 42 because that involves the thorny question of exactly when it is appropriate to deny somebody entry into America.

Without Democratic unity, Republicans will find it easier to sell their fearmongering narrative of “invasion” with the unwitting help of frustrated Democratic governors and mayors. To get that unity and reframe the issue, Democrats should be willing to set the Title 42 debate aside, which is a short-term matter. Biden may not be handling the problem in ideal fashion, but ideal solutions are difficult to concoct. And to win over public opinion, it’s far more essential to tout the economic benefits of immigration, convey that the border situation is unacceptable, and rally communities to manage the migrant influx in a way that will benefit us all.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.