Joe Biden speaks with US Customs and Border Protection officers in El Paso, Texas, on January 8, 2023.

President Joe Biden speaks with US Customs and Border Protection officers as he visits the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, on January 8, 2023.

(Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Selling Out Immigrants for Ukraine Funding Would Be a Disaster

If President Biden caves to the GOP on border policy it will be a disaster, both for migrants at the southern border and his electoral prospects in 2024.

President Biden is currently in the process of negotiating with Congress for a package of military aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. Republicans in the House of Representatives see this as a point of leverage and are trying to push President Biden into accepting regressive immigration reforms in order to win their votes. They are trying to put Biden into a lose-lose situation where he has to decide between helping Ukraine (the part of the package that Republicans object to) and helping migrants at the southern border.

According to news outlets, the White House is open to considering a package of terrible immigration policies in order to secure the requested military aid. As CBS Newsreports, these immigration policies include an exclusion authority similar to Title 42, mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and expanded executive authority for expedited removal. Trading these backward immigration policies for military aid is not only bad policy, but bad politics. This is a critical moment when the White House and congressional Democrats need to have clear advocacy and make the case to the American people that conservative immigration policies are bad for the country, while refusing to take part in these Republican hostage negotiations.

First Things First – Shame on the Republicans

Although I am going to spend most of this article discussing what the Democrats should do, it is important to start by emphasizing what a reprehensible move this is by the Republicans to try to force the Democrats into choosing between helping migrants and helping Ukraine. We have grown so used to the awful things that the modern Republican Party does on a regular basis, that we frequently take it for granted and become overly focused on the morality of how the Democrats will respond. However, we need to keep a clear moral perspective and start from the point of acknowledging that holding Ukraine aid hostage to try and push a pugnacious and punitive set of immigration policies is a terrible thing to do.

Holding Ukraine aid hostage to try and push a pugnacious and punitive set of immigration policies is a terrible thing to do.

I know that there are many in the progressive community who are ambivalent about funding Ukraine’s defense. However, the fundamental truth is that the Ukrainian people were invaded by a world power armed with nuclear weapons and are facing an existential threat, even though they have not committed any aggressive acts toward Russia. What the Republicans are doing is forcing an unnecessary and immoral dilemma on the Democrats: either help this group of people who need aid and hurt this other group of people who need aid; or hurt this group of people who need aid and help this other group of people who need aid. There is no reason we cannot help both. This move by the Republicans effectively amounts to a hostage negotiation with real human lives on the line. They’ve attempted to set up a set of outcomes where people are going to die either way, all in an effort to make the Democrats look bad. Shame on them.

I should also note that I am only focusing on the Ukraine portion of this military aid package because that is the part that the Republicans are keen to stop. There is a broader discussion about military aid to Israel and Taiwan, but for now, the point of contention is Ukraine.

The Immigration Laws Proposed by Republicans are Bad Policy

It is no surprise that the “reforms” on immigration that the GOP is pushing are bad policy. You can find a great clip of Democratic Rep. Greg Casar of Texas and Juan González of Democracy Now! tearing apart the proposed laws here. I have also previously written about how right-wing policy is the cause of the crisis at the border. To summarize, conservative policies cause disruption in Latin America and the Caribbean, which causes people to be desperate and flee their home countries. Then, conservative policy denies them an orderly, humane way to come to the United State, which causes them to show up at the southern border seeking help. The Republican narrative that people come to the border and try to cross because of some imaginary “open border” policy is completely incorrect. Instead, as Rep. Casar notes in the clip above, the Trump administration expanded economic sanctions and restrictions on Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, and the inevitable result was a significant increase in people from those countries fleeing and coming to the southern U.S. border.

This increase in people arriving at the southern border from these three countries is a direct result of policy moves taken under the Trump administration, as well as some from the Biden administration. For example, Donald Trump expanded oil sanctions against Venezuela and tried to foment a coup by supporting Juan Guaidó’s attempt to proclaim himself President in order to force Nicolás Maduro out of office. The intent behind actions like this is to destabilize conditions in the target country, which is exactly the effect that was achieved. The problem is that it did not lead to the desired change in leadership, but instead caused large numbers of people to flee. Further, these people fleeing are not deterred by our insanely outsized spending on “border security.” As Casar and González note in the clip above, the U.S. spends billions of dollars on so-called border security, but the number of people showing up at the border only continues to increase. If “tough” border security measures were effective at stopping people from coming to the border, then shouldn’t we see the numbers decreasing? Instead, Republican border policies are only increasing the number of people coming to the border, largely because they misidentify the source of the problem, and are based on the false and frankly racist idea that people coming to the border are a hoard of invaders, instead of the reality that they are mostly desperate people seeking a better life.

The exclusion authority that Republicans are proposing will be similar to what happened with Title 42 under Donald Trump. Trump used Title 42 to direct U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to turn away people who had crossed into the U.S., even if they were requesting asylum. This is illegal because the U.S. is required by international law to at least give asylum seekers on U.S. soil a hearing for their claim, no matter how they entered the country. Also, it was a humanitarian disaster. It sent asylum seekers back into Mexico where many had nowhere to return and became victims of crime, violence, and extortion.

None of these policies will slow down the number of people showing up at the border. They will only cause more human suffering and cost the U.S. government money.

Mandatory detention for asylum seekers would result in a sudden increase in the number of people detained, which the system is not prepared to handle. U.S. immigration detention is terrible for the detainees. They face inhumane conditions and abuse. Further, detaining them is expensive and often prevents them from accessing the tools they need to prepare their asylum cases in immigration court. Expanding immigration detention will only expand human suffering. It will not increase public safety, as migrants in immigration court overwhelmingly appear in court for their hearings, and non-citizens commit crime at a lower rate than U.S. citizens. Finally, expanded expedited removal will only deprive people of their due process rights under the 14th Amendment, similar to the expansion of the exclusion authority described above.

None of these policies will slow down the number of people showing up at the border. They will only cause more human suffering and cost the U.S. government money. Department of Homeland Security officials are usually hawkish on immigration, but even they are warning that these proposals will completely overwhelm the detention system and “break the border.”

Trading Ukraine Aid for Migration Restrictions is Bad Politics

Not only are the policies proposed by Republicans ineffective, cruel, and expensive, but if President Biden takes this deal, it will hurt the Democrats electorally. This is at a time when defeating Donald Trump is a national priority, given that he has said he will be a dictator "on day one" and is paving the way for fascism in the United States. The result will be bad policy and an unpopular incumbent in Joe Biden heading into the 2024 election.

Americans are generally sympathetic toward immigrants, but polling on immigration issues varies wildly depending on the phrasing of the question asked. A 2021 survey from the CATO Institute found that 72% of Americans agree that immigrants come to the U.S. for jobs and to improve their lives, and 91% of Americans welcome at least some level of immigration. Although there are some questions on surveys that show a more restrictionist mindset, I think that most Americans have basic human empathy and don’t want to see the government inflict cruelty and suffering on immigrants.

If President Biden takes this deal, he is going to lose all of his credibility on immigration. His record on immigration issues has already been mixed at best. Most notably, he received a lot of criticism for rolling out humanitarian programs for Ukrainians to come to the U.S., but left the door at the southern border closed to the mostly non-white immigrants who seek refuge there. We could see a narrative develop that President Biden only cares about white immigrants like Ukrainians. The immigrant community could easily feel like they have been sold out for Ukraine. This would be disastrous for a presidential candidate who needs strong turnout among non-white voters to win. Turnout is the key to winning the presidency and this will result in less enthusiasm for Biden and therefore, lower turnout.

Taking this deal will also muddy the immigration debate.

It is also important to point out that this will do absolutely nothing to help President Biden win over conservative voters. Hardcore conservatives are so detached from reality that Biden could literally put the military on the border and seal it off, and the conservatives would still say that he is an “open border” president. Taking this deal will not move the needle with conservative voters at all. It will only serve to drive down turnout among the Democratic base, which is a recipe for disaster in 2024. Indeed, this is the intention of the Republicans in the House. They want to force Biden into a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation.

Taking this deal will also muddy the immigration debate. When I argue with people on X (formerly Twitter) about immigration, one thing I hear frequently is, “Well Obama put kids in cages too,” when discussing the Trump administration’s monstrous child separation policy. If these policies come into law, the new refrain from the right-wingers will be, “Well Biden detained all of the asylum seekers.” It will give the conservatives another talking point that they can use to obfuscate and justify their horrible immigration policies in the future.

Conclusion – So What Should Biden Do?

President Biden needs to call out the Republicans to the American people and repeatedly emphasize how morally bankrupt they are. He needs to call this what it is, a hostage negotiation where he is being asked to trade the lives of migrants for the lives of Ukrainians, and persuade the American people to stand up against the GOP on this. If he can do it, then the Republicans will blink, just like they have blinked before on government shutdown negotiations. They backed down in the past when it became so toxic and unpopular to hold things up that they had no choice. The same thing needs to happen here.

If President Biden caves to them, it will be a disaster, both for migrants at the southern border and his electoral prospects in 2024. I urge President Biden and the Democratic leadership to not take part in this GOP hostage negotiation.

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