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Democrats Eye New Immigration Strategy After Suozzi Win

Suozzi’s message was twofold: more border security and an expansion of legal pathways for migrants to come in legally.

Democrat Tom Suozzi rode to victory Tuesday by latching on to vulnerabilities for his own party. ,Mary Altaffer/AP

Tom Suozzi’s success this week flipping a New York congressional district from red to blue is emboldening Democrats to “go on offense” on immigration, raising both hopes and fears among advocates.

The former and future congressman leaned into immigration during his campaign to replace ousted Rep. George Santos (R), bucking a trend of Democrats shying away from the issue as Republicans consistently hammer President Biden over his handling of the border.

Suozzi’s message was twofold: more border security and an expansion of legal pathways for migrants to come in legally. The two-tiered message resonated with the New York suburban district’s voters and, as a package, it’s music to the ears of advocates.

“Tough border security, coupled with increased legal pathways, humane efforts to bring in the immigrants safely — those who really have a reason to come over here and ask for asylum,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist.

“Now I think Democrats are understanding the way that Suozzi won was not just the security, the tough approach. He did both, and that’s why he won. It demonstrated that that’s where the American people are,” Cardona said.

For years, immigrant advocates have been telling anyone who’ll listen that they support better border security, and that they want to see fewer people forced to use asylum as a means of U.S. immigration.

“Against conventional wisdom, the Suozzi campaign didn’t ignore the issue of immigration, but addressed it head on, addressing border security and the path to citizenship for long-settled immigrants, while countering his opponent’s extremism. We’ve long advocated for this winning formula,” said Beatriz Lopez, deputy director of the Immigration Hub.

Few in either party had been listening.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), the group that’s taken ownership of representing immigrant communities in Congress, was shut out of the bipartisan Senate border negotiations for the deal that crashed spectacularly this month.

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That legislation was heavy on the border security elements and light on the creation of new pathways for new immigrants or for existing undocumented immigrants to fix their papers.

Though the Senate package provided immigration relief to groups including so-called “documented Dreamers,” the children of work-visa holders who age out of status, its relatively one-sided approach drew ire from advocates.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the architects of the deal, released a memo Wednesday after Suozzi’s victory, encouraging Democrats to replicate the Long Island model and go on the offensive on immigration.

Murphy implied, however, that Democrats in the past had put too much focus on relief for the undocumented.

“The primary, proactive change Democrats talk about is a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people. This is a worthy, broadly popular objective — one that we should keep as a priority,” wrote Murphy.

“But we can make it more popular by framing it inside a message that prioritizes strong and fair border policies. An immigration message that supports legal immigration and a pathway to citizenship, but leads with a belief in an orderly, safe border is both politically advantageous and morally defensible.”

Immigration advocates, on a high after Suozzi’s victory appears to have changed the conversation in their favor, skirted around their differences with Murphy’s approach, but pointed out what they see as the core deficiency of the failed bipartisan Senate deal.

“One of the things that needs to happen is that we need to be at the table. And unfortunately, the process in the Senate did not guarantee that,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.).

“We need to be at the table so that we can have our agenda items fully discussed, understanding that we’re not going to get everything we want, just like the other side is not going to get everything they want — that there must be a consensus built to move forward together, as the election showed last night.”

The subtle differences between Murphy’s and Espaillat’s approaches boil down to a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: Do voters want border security first and a functioning immigration system second, or vice versa?

For immigration advocates and experts, that distinction is important because they see expanded legal pathways as a first step to reduce demand for illegal crossings and asylum claims.

Advocates have fought to maintain the current standard to apply for asylum — prospective asylees must convince border authorities they have a “significant possibility” of making a successful asylum case before a judge.

The Senate deal would have raised that standard to only allow applicants with a “reasonable possibility” of making their case, in order to reduce the number of foreign nationals who get to the second step in the asylum process.

In theory, that heightened standard, coupled with more detention and other border security measures, would deter people from crossing the border to claim asylum, though some advocates say it would only encourage migrants to attempt to enter the United States undetected.

Improving legal pathways — creating visas that migrants can realistically apply for and receive — would channel migrants away from unauthorized border crossings and asylum applications altogether, advocates say.

Espaillat said Suozzi beat Republican Mazi Pilip’s immigration attacks by “speaking right in front of it, directly through the center and talking about not just border security but opening up pathways to legal migration — which we see how it impacts favorably the situation at the border.” 

Yet Suozzi also crossed lines that under different circumstances would have landed him in the doghouse with progressives and immigration advocates, for instance expressing comfort at calling conditions at the border an “invasion.”

Suozzi’s vision also matches Murphy’s more closely than it does the advocates’; he praised the Senate deal and used its failure to attack his opponent.

The immigration left is mostly ready to give Democratic candidates a pass on that sort of campaign language, so long as “going on offense” doesn’t imply going back to the Senate deal’s approach.

“While this election will not predict the winners or losers in November, the lesson for President Biden and Democrats is key. No strategy that rushes to the far right or attempts to out-Trump Trump will mobilize voters,” Lopez said.

And many Democrats feel comfortable with Suozzi’s approach, with the party requiring less fealty to its leader than the GOP under former President Trump.

“What you’re not going to see is President Biden going out there and throwing Tom Suozzi under the bus because he distanced himself from him, the way that you’re seeing Donald Trump throw his candidates under the bus if they don’t come and kiss the ring,” Cardona said.

“That means that Democrats understand the politics of all of the different districts and states that Democrats need to win. And the president and the White House and the campaign are absolutely OK with that. We are a big tent party.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chair Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) told reporters Wednesday that Suozzi’s approach worked because “he spoke authentically about his positions,” and because he had a resume as a deal-making centrist in his prior tenure in the House.

But DelBene didn’t explicitly endorse going on offense as a national Democratic strategy.

“Each of our districts are very different in different parts of the country in terms of how they rank issues, how they’re impacted by issues. … So you’re gonna see folks talking in an authentic way about how they’re going to approach issues,” she said.

And some on the left are warning against attributing Suozzi’s win entirely to how he talked about immigration, or to his willingness to adopt some right-leaning language on the matter.

“All the hot takes hanging the entirety of Suozzi’s win on ‘immigration’ are conflating two different dynamics. Suozzi didn’t win because he edged rightward on immigration. To the degree that his focus on immigration helped, it was because it highlighted Republican chaos, political theater, and their complete lack of interest in serious governing, all with a crisp receipt in their choice to tank their own border bill,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, a group that supported Suozzi.

Levin added that Suozzi’s campaign also leaned on other top issues such as abortion, and benefited from the fact the special election was held to replace Santos, who was expelled from the House amid scandals and criminal indictments.

“Suozzi successfully made the contrast sharp: Republicans are chaos in Congress, they’re a threat to abortion and elections, and they can’t be trusted to work for solutions. It’s all political theater for them. And that lack of trust is especially true in a district that had just been represented by George f‑‑‑ing Santos.”

—Caroline Vakil contributed. Updated at 11:15 a.m.