Vulnerable Senate Democrats caught in crossfire over border security

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Vulnerable Senate Democrats facing tough reelection races in Republican-leaning or swing states say they are open to supporting immigration policy reforms as part of an emergency foreign aid package.  

That could give Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) incentive to cut a deal with Republicans to curb the flow of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told The Hill that he supports the changes to migration policy and asylum policy that Senate GOP colleagues are demanding.  

“I do,” he said. “I think it’s very important. I think it’s very important. We need to secure our own borders. There has to be a worker visa program.

“We’ve got more than what we can handle in a really humane way. It’s putting strain all across the country. We ought to put a hiatus right now until we get our act together, so we’re going to be talking about that.” 

Manchin, who trails West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice in a hypothetical Senate general election match-up, has yet to say whether he will run for reelection.  

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), the former Democrat who last year switched her affiliation to independent, negotiated with Senate Republicans in September over possible border security reforms to add to a stopgap funding measure in exchange for getting GOP support for $6 billion in assistance to Ukraine.  

While Congress passed a stopgap funding measure on Sept. 30 without significant Ukraine funding or border security language, Sinema is still talking with her Republican colleagues.

In May, Sinema and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) introduced bipartisan legislation giving the Biden administration two-year temporary expulsion authority for migrants who enter the country illegally without inspection of proper documents. 

Sinema, whose seat counts toward the Senate Democrats’ majority for organizational purposes, hasn’t yet made formal a decision on whether to run for reelection. 

Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Manchin, who are all up for reelection in states that former President Trump won in 2016 and 2020, co-sponsored Sinema’s bill to grant Biden expanded expulsion authority.  

Asked about some of the asylum policy changes being pushed by Republicans, Tester said, “I’d look at them.” 

“I think the border situation needs to be addressed, absolutely,” he added. “Technology and manpower in particular.”  

Asked about possible policy changes to address migration, Brown said, “presidents of both parties have failed on this.”

“We got to figure out what we need to do, particularly with smuggling fentanyl in,” he added, noting that 90 percent of the fentanyl that has been confiscated at the border has been seized at legal points of entry in Arizona and California.  

He said “a lot of the focus should be” on stopping the flow of fentanyl.  

Brown signed an Oct. 19 letter with Tester and Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), who also face competitive races next year, asking Biden to prioritize additional resources to strengthen security at the southwest border.  

They noted that seizures of fentanyl by U.S. Customs and Border Protection have tripled since 2019. The letter, however, did not request any policy changes to deter migration. 

Republicans view the explosion of migrants crossing the southern border since President Biden took office as one of their best political issues in the 2024 election. They plan to bombard vulnerable Democratic incumbents with political attacks ads highlighting the issue.  

Republicans also plan to go on offense against Democrats over the flow of fentanyl into the country, an issue that they are linking to border security. 

The monthly flood of hundreds of thousands of migrants into the country has produced a backlash even in Democratic strongholds such as Chicago and New York City.  

Voting for a bipartisan deal to address the problem could help inoculate vulnerable Democrats from next year’s political attacks. 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) acknowledged that Republicans could be giving vulnerable Democratic colleagues some political cover by insisting on policy changes to lower the flow of migrants, which they see as a great political issue for their side. 

“If you’re being political here, we’d let the border continue to be a crisis. But we can’t do that. We have to secure that border. We’re doing the Biden administration a huge favor by demanding they secure the border,” he said.

But so far, neither the White House nor Schumer has signaled agreement with the policy changes that Republicans are demanding.  

Instead, Biden and Schumer are offering to provide more resources for law enforcement personnel on the southern border. Biden has requested funding for 1,300 additional border patrol agents, 100 fentanyl detection machines, 1,600 additional asylum officers and 375 new immigration judge teams. 

“I believe that [President] Biden’s proposal, which is funding, will do the most to get us at the fentanyl crisis … and dealing with the problems at the border. We are not for policy changes,” Schumer told reporters on Oct. 24.

“The best thing to do is pass the Biden proposal on the border. It will do more to stop the problems of fentanyl and other issues than any other,” he argued.  

Senate and House Republicans, however, say Biden’s proposal doesn’t go far enough and are insisting that Democrats agree to changes to asylum policy as part of any package that funds the war in Ukraine, which is a top Biden administration foreign policy priority.  

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) told Senate Republicans at a meeting Wednesday that he will insist on immigration policy changes in any bill funding the war in Ukraine. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) leadership team, warned that Biden and Schumer won’t get any money for Ukraine without immigration policy changes.  

Specifically, Republicans want to raise the standard for asylum claims.  

One proposal is to require migrants seeking asylum to demonstrate “reasonable fear” of persecution based on their politics, race or religion.  

Another proposal is to deny asylum claims to migrants who pass through a “safe” third country before coming to the United States.  

“We need to narrow it down what the precise ask is going to be,” Cornyn said.  

“Catch and release needs to be eliminated. That’s the fundamental problem, and that cuts across a number of things, like parole policy, which is just simply release people even if they’re not claiming asylum,” he said. “Right now the welcome mat is out and people are going to keep coming because they can.” 

Cornyn, a former chairman of the Senate Republican campaign arm, said vulnerable Senate Democrats would be “smart” to back asylum policy changes ahead of the election.  

“If they’re smart they should just blame Republicans and say Republicans made us do it,” he said.

Cornyn said “as a political matter” if Biden “negotiated something which actually helped reduce the flow [of migrants] it would be a plus for him but more importantly it would be plus for the country.”