Immigration is threatening to drive a wedge between President Joe Biden and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which has elevated to outright protest its criticism of the White House for a lack of movement on border issues.

The increasingly vocal dissension from the left leaves Biden vulnerable on an issue over which Republicans have excoriated him since Day One of his presidency, even as he begins to make the case to the American people for a second term in office.

Immigration activists and advocates have rebuked Biden since the early days of his presidency for appearing silent on the issue for long stretches until he recently announced moves designed to stem an uptick in illegal immigration at the southern border and provide new legal pathways for migrants. But now lawmakers have joined the chorus, leveling stinging comparisons between their standard-bearer and his predecessor.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, joined by several of his House and Senate colleagues during a Thursday news conference, said he is “appalled” that Biden is replicating the immigration strategy of former President Donald Trump. He was referencing the administration’s continued use of Title 42, the controversial Trump-era rule that allows border agents to rapidly expel asylum-seekers.

“There can be no confusing the Biden administration’s immigration policy with the Trump administration’s, but doing better than Trump … shouldn’t be the bar,” Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York added.

Political Cartoons on Joe Biden

The comments came after close to 80 senators and representatives – but notably no top Democratic congressional leaders – sent a letter, first reported by The New York Times, to Biden expressing “great concern” over recent asylum restrictions and expansions on Title 42. The administration has fought in court to try to end the use of the expulsion practice but nevertheless has tied it to new border policies.

Those policies, announced earlier this month, include the expansion of a humanitarian parole process originally created for Venezuelans to include individuals from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua. The process allows up to 30,000 people per month to enter the United States and stay for up to two years once vetted and approved, as long as they apply through an app from their home countries. The State Department also recently announced a new private sponsorship program that will allow Americans to sponsor refugees already approved through the traditional admissions process.

The Department of Homeland Security said in a Wednesday news release that recent border crossing attempts have plummeted, with “encounters” dropping from a daily average above 3,000 in December to just over 100 earlier this week. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement that the numbers show the “expanded border enforcement measures are working.”

But the enforcement measures attached to the programs are where Biden has received the bulk of the complaints. While the programs establishing new pathways have been largely applauded by advocates, the linked process that allows Homeland Security to increase the use of “expedited removal” for migrants and subject them to a five-year ban on reentry has been criticized as a restriction on asylum rights.

Among Democrats, some 28% disapprove of his handling of immigration, significantly higher than the 16% of Democrats who disapprove of Biden’s job performance overall and placing dissatisfaction on the issue from the left in the territory of inflation and guns, according to a recent Yahoo! News/YouGov poll. Meanwhile, 31% of those surveyed across the political spectrum approve of how the president is handling immigration. The number was a new low as measured by that poll and was the most negative for Biden among 10 issues tested, according to Yahoo! News.

“The bipartisan nature of these complaints is largely due to the fact that the administration has, for the last two years, spoken on both sides of its mouth when it comes to border issues,” Jorge Loweree, the managing director of programs and strategy at the American Immigration Council, says. “Namely, claiming to want to restore and preserve access to asylum, while at the same time continuing and, in some cases even expanding, some of the worst politics from the Trump era. The cognitive dissonance is finally starting to catch up with them.”

Loweree disputes the idea that Biden has been largely absent on the issue of immigration, pointing to some aggressive changes when he first entered office. He adds, however, that the pace of change slowed once the number of people trying to enter the country increased, because “everything begins and ends at the southern border when it comes to immigration policy in the U.S. right now.” He notes that the administration has had to deal with litigation challenges – mostly from GOP-led states – related to its more recent policies as well.

The president, who has expressed an interest in running for reelection but has not yet declared, needs Congress’ help too, Loweree says – from Republicans to the same Democratic lawmakers who blasted his asylum policies outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday morning.

“We certainly don’t agree with many of the things that they have done, but that doesn’t change the fact that the options that they have available to them to make changes unilaterally to try to improve the system are relatively limited,” he adds. “They need an equal and willing partner in the legislative branch, and that just hasn’t existed.”

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