When Donald Trump took his final trip as president to the southwest border in January, the publicly stated purpose was to tout his record. Privately, however, his Republican allies had hatched a plan that they thought could get them back into the seats of power.
In Alamo, Texas, supporters lined the route of the motorcade. Trump used a Sharpie to autograph a newly constructed piece of the 452 miles of a 30-foot steel wall. He was joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), as well as the head of the federal agency charged with border enforcement, Mark Morgan, and Tom Homan, a former Trump immigration official who had pushed for Republicans to speak more about the issue during the 2020 campaign.
Graham “thought this needed to be an area of contrast so that when the Senate elections happen in 2022 this could be a place where they could really have some contrast,” said a person familiar with the senator’s four-hour visit with Trump at the White House four days earlier. Graham’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The conversations around the trip were some of the earliest indications that Republicans anticipated the spike in migrants crossing the border — due to seasonal patterns and regional crises — and planned to use it as a political cudgel to try to retake Congress in the midterm elections. The topic turned out to be much more of a vulnerability for Biden than even they expected.
A record increase in the number of unaccompanied children coming to the border, the slow pace to process and house them, and the White House’s muddled message around it all is complicating Biden’s attempt to focus on fighting the coronavirus and reviving the economy. And while many of the political problems he is facing are of his own making, some of it was set in motion — through policy choices and political calculations — by his opponents before he even stepped foot in the Oval Office.
Now, after weeks of traveling to the border, writing letters, drafting memos and calling for investigations, Republicans are readying an even more aggressive plan to feature Biden’s policies in campaign ads and mailers in states across the country. GOP officials say the border — alongside the resistance to reopening schools during the pandemic — offer them the greatest political opportunities so far in Biden’s young presidency.
“It’s going to be a massive issue … in the midterms,” said Republican strategist Jason Miller, an adviser to Trump. “Biden clearly made a number of deals with progressives in his party but progressives in his party don’t necessarily represent the swing voters and working class blue collar voters all around the country.”
In interviews with a dozen Democrats and Republicans — including GOP strategists, Biden advisers and immigration advocates who work with the White House — a picture emerges not just of a Republican Party eager to leverage a policy point that worked well for Trump in his first run for office, but of a Biden White House that was ill-prepared for them to do that. Several Democrats and immigration activists who support Biden said they have grown frustrated that the White House has failed to respond to the attacks more forcefully and fully embrace pro-immigration policies.
In virtual briefings, the advocacy group Immigration Hub recently urged the White House and committees working to elect Democrats in 2022 not to back away from supporting expansive immigration proposals, such as a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants, and to clearly explain what specifically can be done to help on the border, including new shelters for children, technology to stop would-be border crossers and addressing the root causes of migration, according to a person familiar with the briefings.
In a five-page memo obtained by POLITICO, Immigration Hub cited internal polling that indicates immigration could be politically helpful to Democrats if they can better explain their policies. Sixty-three percent of nationwide voters, for example, approve of Biden’s approach to the border when introduced to it while 28 percent disapprove.
“A lot of people are not familiar with President Biden’s strategy, his policies, his vision,” said Sergio Gonzales, the group’s executive director, who worked on the Biden transition. “It really is incumbent upon the White House and Democrats to articulate what they stand for. They need to lean in and actually be very clear with the American public on what the plan is.”
Before he left office, Trump was repeatedly briefed on the expected increase of migrants at the border caused by a spate of hurricanes in Central America, the economic downturn, the traditional seasonal fluctuations, even the change in administration, according to two people familiar with the briefings.
In turn, outgoing officials at two agencies, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, briefed Biden’s transition officials on the expected rise, said Homan, former acting ICE director and Trump confidant.
“Senior leadership in DHS under Trump told his transition team, told them numerous times, if you end these policies you’re going to see an unprecedented surge,” he said.
Homan said he had urged Republicans, who lost the White House and Senate in November, to speak more about immigration during the campaign. But Trump talked about the issue far less in 2020 than in 2016 in part because of the all-consuming pandemic but also because some of his aides were reluctant to turn off Hispanic voters in critical states.
Biden’s team blames Trump for pushing through last-minute policy changes, including closing shelters for children, that worsened the situation and for failing to share information as he blocked the transition in unprecedented ways.
“Being prepared and having a plan is not the same as having the right tools available especially when the previous administration created such a mess,” said Cecilia Muñoz, a top immigration adviser for Barack Obama who worked on the Biden transition team.
During the transition, the incoming Biden administration outlined specific plans to reverse Trump policies, including halting the construction of the border wall and stopping deportations for 100 days, that Republicans thought would create more problems at the border.
But Biden has yet to act on many of Trump’s immigration policies, from failing to increase the cap on refugees to rescinding a ban on most migrants at the southern border. He is allowing unaccompanied children and some families to remain in the U.S. for humanitarian reasons, though his administration was not ready for the influx.
In the Senate, Republicans say the rise in migrants at the border is expected to be an issue in competitive races across the country from Colorado and Arizona to New Hampshire and Georgia. In the House, they say, it would likely be used more often in border districts in Texas and Arizona.
“It’s certainly central to our messaging,” said a Republican operative involved with numerous Senate races. “Democrats are out of touch with the American people on immigration. They’re afraid of doing something on the border that would make liberal activist groups angry, regardless of whether it’s the right thing to do. We plan to highlight this every step of the way because it’s clearly bad policy. “
They cite poll after poll showing Biden’s low job approval rating on the border, especially with independents. House Republicans will soon poll the issue in battleground districts while Senate Republicans point to their poll that show 62 percent of independents disapprove of policies that include cutting border funding and halting deportations.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison said, “Republicans are cynically stoking fear about children and families to score political points … Their tactics didn’t work in 2017. They didn’t work in 2018. They didn’t work in 2020. And they won’t work now. I’m proud that Democrats are working on solutions to the challenges at the border — Republicans need to drop their scare tactics and help find real solutions.”
The number of migrants had been steadily increasing for months. But it rose more sharply this year. More than 18,800 unaccompanied children crossed the border in March, a record-breaking figure; the previous high was more than 11,000 children in May 2019, according to CBP. The March numbers represent an almost 100 percent increase from February, when more than 9,400 minors were taken into custody.
“No one would be honest and say they foresaw the worst border crisis in history unfolding in just two months of his tenure, three months in his tenure,” a Republican campaign strategist said. That would include Biden’s team, which acknowledged this week that the influx was more than expected.
“That increase and that influx, as you all know, was higher than most people, including us, anticipated,” said press secretary Jen Psaki.
In response, the administration has opened emergency shelters for minors traveling alone, activated the Federal Emergency Management Agency and restored a program allowing some Central American children to apply for admission to the U.S. from their home countries.
Biden announced he was putting Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of diplomacy in the region known as the Northern Triangle and asking for $4 billion over four years to tackle the root causes of migration in Central American countries.
Still, even some of Biden’s allies have criticized him for his response, particularly over the treatment of unaccompanied children housed in crowded facilities, and urged them to quickly implement programs that would open up paths to legal immigration.
“They got caught flat footed,” said a person who consults with the White House on immigration policy. “They made this much worse.”