Biden’s historic border shutdown offer sets the stage for full immigration reform

The 2024 election campaign was in full display last week following Donald Trump’s victory in the New Hampshire primary. Just when the Senate appeared on the cusp of a bipartisan deal on border security, he pulled the rug out from negotiators telling supporters: “As leader of our party, there is zero chance I will support this horrible open borders betrayal of America.” 

Key features of the bill under consideration would make it harder for migrants to claim asylum, expand detention capacity and expedite the expulsion of migrants who lack lawful reasons to stay in the country. The plan would also add staff to the Border Patrol and those tasked with processing migrants. It also includes a mechanism to shut down migrant intake when it exceeds more than 5,000 daily border encounters. 

Republicans in the Senate are scrambling to find a way to rescue it. However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who previously was optimistic that a bill would clear the Senate, reportedly told caucus members that the politics on the border have changed. He indicated Trump will be calling the shots as the party’s presumptive nominee for president. 

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) went even further declaring that any bill the Senate sends to the House would be D.O.A. Johnson’s position resembles the bill the House passed last year that would revive Trump’s policies such as border wall construction and make it nearly impossible for most migrants to qualify for asylum. However, it is considered a non-starter, as no Democrat voted for it. 

The Senate, nonetheless, is poised for a showdown with the House. The reason: Mitch McConnell and his allies are betting that if the legislation clears the Senate by a wide margin, Johnson will come under heavy pressure to put it up for a vote in the House. 

Amid this, President Biden has urged Congress to pass a border security bill as part of a supplemental spending package that would funnel money to Ukraine and Israel. He stated he would be willing to “shut down the border” if it becomes overwhelmed with immigrants.  

Many observers are surprised how far the negotiations progressed in the Senate considering that no legislation on immigration has been enacted since the failure of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. Previously, the last immigration bill to pass both houses of Congress was in 1986 when Ronald Reagan was president. 

The main reason for the progress is that concessions Democrats are willing to make go well beyond anything they offered previously. 

One reason is the number of “apprehensions” along the southern border has surged more than four times from prior levels during the past four years. Television coverage makes it clear to the public that the problem is growing. 

A second reason is that polls show voters assign Biden very poor marks for not stemming the flow. It reportedly might hurt his reelection chances even more than the surge in inflation. Consequently, many Democrats think Biden must let voters know he is addressing the problem. 

The big unknown is how prospective voters would react if there is no bill. 

Trump told a crowd in Nevada that a lot of senators are trying to blame him for stymieing the talks. His response is: “That’s okay. Please blame it on me. Please.”   

The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, however, has warned that “giving up on a border security bill would be a self-inflicted GOP wound,” giving President Biden evidence to say that “Republicans want border chaos as an election issue rather than solving the problem.” The editorial contends that while Trump may believe he can strike his own border deal if he wins in November, it is highly unlikely. 

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) sent the same message to House Republicans: “To get this kind of border security without granting a pathway to citizenship is really unheard of … This is a historic moment to reform the border.” 

Biden must explain to the electorate how difficult it has been to get agreement on immigration reform since the mid-1980s. In a guest essay for the New York Times, Steven Rattner and Maureen White observe that the immigration system is underfunded and also, “swaddled in bureaucracy, complicated beyond imagination, bound by decades-old international agreements, paralyzed by divisive politics and barely functional under the best of circumstances.” 

My take is that the passage of a border security bill would be monumental because it has been the most contentious issue blocking efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. If it could be overcome, legislation covering Dreamers and immigrants who seek to enter the country legally could be considered after the 2024 elections.  

As I have maintained previously, this is vital to counter labor shortages arising from slowing U.S. population growth and the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the end, the U.S. must return to its roots and embrace legal immigrants for the dynamism and work ethic they bring. If not, it could become yet another country whose growth prospects have diminished because the working-age population is stagnating.  

Nicholas Sargen, Ph.D., is an economic consultant for Fort Washington Investment Advisors and is affiliated with the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  He has written three books including “Investing in The Trump Era; How Economic Policies Impact Financial Markets.” 

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