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Democrats in tight races support border bill despite past opposition to stricter asylum rules and border wall money

<i>Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Asylum seekers at the El Chaparral crossing port in Tijuana
Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Asylum seekers at the El Chaparral crossing port in Tijuana

By Em Steck, CNN

(CNN) — Democrats were roundly united against former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. But as the situation at the border has worsened under President Joe Biden, many Democrats have come to embrace some of the very policies they once opposed.

That was on display Thursday in the Senate, when a number of Democrats in tight re-election races voted for a bipartisan border bill that would’ve made it easier for the federal government to bar asylum seekers from entering the country, and included money to fund miles of new border wall.

Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jacky Rosen of Nevada both strongly opposed a measure known as Title 42 that was initiated under Trump during Covid-19 allowing officials to turn away asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border.

Brown and Rosen were among 34 Democratic senators who signed onto an open letter in 2020 criticizing the Trump administration’s asylum policies, even likening them to denying safe passage to Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in World War II.

But under Biden, Brown later supported extending Title 42 before it expired in May 2023. While Rosen did not advocate for its extension, she warned that the Biden administration was underprepared for an influx of migrants when Title 42 expired.

While Democrats mostly say their position has always been to support bipartisan solutions to the border crisis, their vote comes as immigration has surged to the top of voter priorities, reflecting the shifting politics around immigration and the border under Biden.

Monthly apprehensions of migrants crossing into the US from Mexico have surged under Biden, topping out at nearly 250,000 in December 2023, up from 90,760 apprehensions from December 2021, according to government data.

A Rosen campaign spokesperson said in a statement to CNN that Rosen has “consistently fought for commonsense and bipartisan reforms to secure the border, fix our broken immigration system and keep our communities safe.”

A spokesperson for Brown said that he, too, supported an opportunity for bipartisan reform at the border, and pointed to comments Brown made in May 2023: “I don’t think you can get something comprehensive now, under the pressure of what’s happening at the border,” referring to his support for extending Title 42, adding, “we need to send more resources to the border” and needed more time to “get this right.”

The decision by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to hold a second vote on the bipartisan border security bill was widely seen as a political exercise designed to force Republican senators to vote again on a measure they’d already killed in February, at the behest of Trump. But it also gave some Democrats in competitive races a chance to support a tough immigration bill.

Brown and Rosen both face competitive reelection campaigns in Ohio and Nevada. So does Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who also voted to support the border bill on Thursday.

Tester was on the record opposing a wall long before Trump became a political figure. While running for the Senate in 2006, amidst a different immigration crisis, Tester said during a debate, “It’s not secure in the least … But in the end, if we’re focused on this – I am not in favor of by the way building a fence or a wall or anything else like that.”

At one point during the Trump administration, Tester acknowledged that “there are some places where a wall does make sense.” But Tester also has a history of mocking the wall as “ineffective and wasteful” and as a “Medieval border wall” that was not technologically advanced. In January 2019, Tester spoke out against Trump’s border wall along the entire US-Mexico border, saying, “I will tell you unequivocally, a wall from sea to shining sea is not the right direction to go.”

Tester’s campaign pointed to 14 votes he cast since 2007 to secure funding for border fences, barriers and walls.

Recently, Tester’s campaign used prominent images of the border wall in an ad to illustrate his commitment to “securing the border.”

A Tester campaign spokesperson told CNN, “Senator Tester has been a vocal and consistent supporter of border security and Montana’s brave law enforcement officers since the beginning of his time in office—including voting for border wall funding and opposing President Biden’s border policies.”

The Democrats’ tonal shift on immigration and the border is also reflected by what wasn’t in the bill, specifically a pathway to citizenship. It is the first major piece of immigration legislation supported by Democrats in more than a decade that doesn’t include provisions for undocumented immigrants.

Democrats including Brown and Rosen, as well as Rep. Colin Allred of Texas, who is running against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, have all previously said that comprehensive immigration reform should include a pathway to citizenship, repeatedly introducing legislation to codify protections.

Allred acknowledged that the bill doesn’t have a pathway to citizenship but called it “a much-needed step” on immigration reform. He is a co-sponsor on the Dignity Act, a bipartisan bill that offers a blueprint for the undocumented to gain legal status.

In 2022, Rosen called on Congress to pass a standalone immigration bill for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, known colloquially as Dreamers.

Allred, a former NFL player and civil rights attorney who represents the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Congress, routinely criticized the border wall while first running for Congress in 2018.

Over the next few years, he refered to Trump’s border wall as “racist” and “wasteful, ineffective” and a “failed policy” that was not needed.

In 2019, Allred said that physical barriers were needed in some places and were “sometimes appropriate.” Allred’s campaign pointed CNN to his support for a 2019 appropriations package to avert a government shutdown that offered $1.375 billion in funding for parts of the wall and physical barriers. Allred did not vote for the bill, as he was on paternity leave at the time, but later submitted to the record that he would have voted for it.

In October 2023, Allred praised the Biden administration’s construction of new sections of the Trump border wall at the US-Mexico border, using funds already allocated during the Trump administration. “This is a necessary step to help Texas’ overwhelmed border communities deal with this current surge of migrants,” Allred told The Hill.  

“I’ve always said that limited physical barriers have a role to play in a comprehensive approach to securing our border,” said Allred in February 2024 at a Zoom event hosted by The Houston Chronicle. “I have never supported the idea of, you know, a wall across the entire southern border. I think that’s just a waste of money and it wouldn’t work.”

In a statement, Allred campaign spokesperson Josh Stewart said, “Throughout his entire time in Congress, Congressman Allred has been steadfast on the need for border security as part of comprehensive immigration reform. Unlike [Texas’ junior US Senator] Ted Cruz, he is willing to work with both parties to actually get something done and secure the border.”

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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