Biden’s Border Negotiations Mark Seismic Shift on Immigration Politics

On his first day in office, President Biden sent a bill to Congress to “restore humanity and American values to our immigration system.” Nearly three years later, he is considering sweeping restrictions on migration in exchange for aid to Ukraine and Israel.

It is the latest sign of how drastically the politics of immigration have shifted in the United States, where polls suggest there is growing support, even inside the president’s own party, for border measures once denounced by Democrats and championed by former President Donald Trump.

But it is also a gamble for Mr. Biden, who risks walking away from some of the most deeply held principles of the Democratic Party and angering key parts of his core constituency, such as progressives and young voters.

“There’s no doubt there’s been a shift on this partly because of the influx of these migrants in these big cities,” said David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama. “There are limits to where he can and should go but this is almost a gift to have, under the cover of this broad package, to be able to do things that were perhaps tougher to do before.”

The southern border is a political vulnerability for Mr. Biden, who has been unable to contain a record number of migrants heading north to escape gang violence, poverty and natural disasters. Republican-led states have shipped busloads of migrants to liberal bastions like Washington and New York to protest what they characterize as Mr. Biden’s failed policies.

As border crossings surge, the political center of gravity on the issue has moved sharply to the right. Polls by The New York Times and Siena College in battleground states found that voters preferred Mr. Trump over Mr. Biden on immigration by 12 points.

Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, a swing-state Democrat with left-leaning politics, said his position on restricting migration puts him out of step with the liberal wing of his party.

“I’m not a progressive,” Mr. Fetterman told NBC News.

And some of the country’s most prominent Democratic governors and mayors, whose communities are being stressed by the cost of providing for migrants, have put pressure on Mr. Biden to find new ways to address the crisis.

The fact that Republicans have refused to support further aid for Ukraine without a new crackdown on immigration may give Mr. Biden that opportunity, said pollsters, political experts and some Democrats.

Mr. Biden has said he is willing to make “significant compromises” on border security to satisfy Republicans, who say they will not support any more aid for Ukraine without a new crackdown on immigration.

Some of the proposals on the table include making it more difficult to gain asylum in the United States, which the White House has signaled it is willing to consider. The idea would be to raise the standard migrants must meet when they claim they need asylum in the United States because they fear persecution in their home countries.

But Republicans also want to restrict the use of an immigration policy known as humanitarian parole, which has allowed thousands of Afghans, Ukrainians and others fleeing war and violence to come to the United States. Democrats have not yet agreed to that proposal.

Republicans and Democrats are also discussing a policy that would rapidly turn people away at the border once arrests at the border reach a certain height.

“It was pretty clear that they were considering things that were going to be controversial,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said this week of the White House’s approach to the negotiations. “Changes have to be made in our policy at the border.”

Negotiations were continuing over the weekend, but there was little sign of a potential breakthrough before the end of the year. And while the White House and Democrats have not signed off on the restrictions, the fact that they are even considering them has angered progressives and immigration advocates.

“I just think it’s unfortunate that we constantly do this, where we buy into and try to out-Republican Republicans,” said Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s never worked. The enforcement-only strategy does not work.”

Ms. Jayapal is one of many progressives who appear to have reached a boiling point with the White House. They say the recent polling fails to ask voters about the long-term effects of the policies being considered, which they say would include deporting refugees seeking sanctuary in the United States and breaking apart families.

“Throwing immigrants under the bus — which I’ve seen happen over and over again — is not a good election strategy,” Ms. Jayapal said.

Mr. Biden’s aides say he is trying to find a compromise to secure financial aid that Ukraine needs to win the war against Russia. They say Mr. Biden’s approach is not comparable to that of Mr. Trump, who separated thousands of families at the border.

Asked about potentially embracing Trump-era policies in exchange for the aid, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said this week that the White House’s strategy is consistent with Mr. Biden’s approach in past negotiations on Capitol Hill.

“We understand, in order to come up with a compromise and get things done on behalf of the American people, you have to find a bipartisan way to do that,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.

But some members of the party fear that policies will turn away asylum seekers for years to come.

Representative Gabe Vasquez, Democrat of New Mexico, said Democrats “need to be looking at more than the political moment of today and what the polls say.”

Karoun Demirjian and Hamed Aleaziz contributed reporting.