Updated Mar 10, 2023, 10:19am EST

As Biden tacks right on crime and immigration, some Democrats feel cut out of the picture

President Joe Biden
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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The News

President Biden’s abrupt shift toward a tougher “law and order” stance on crime and immigration has progressives nervous about where he’s headed next.

“I am concerned,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Semafor.

While Jayapal said she’s normally reluctant to “second guess” Biden too much, the administration’s confirmation that it may revive family detentions at the border — a policy Biden personally denounced under Trump — is stirring fears within the caucus about a tack to the right with profound human consequences.

“I do think that there are people within the administration who are giving very bad advice,” Jayapal said. “I don’t know who those people are.”

Late the same day, the Senate voted overwhelmingly — with Biden’s backing — to override a progressive-backed D.C. bill to reform its criminal code. The White House had previously opposed interfering with the District’s self-governance when the same measure was voted on in the House, prompting 173 Democrats to vote against it.

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One thing that both the immigration and crime moves had in common: Key allies complained they were given little warning about a sudden change in Biden’s position.

A spokesman for Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa. said Wednesday that the crime vote had “been mishandled at every turn” including the “White House blindsiding House Dems with a bait and switch.” Congressional Black Caucus members, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, first learned about Biden’s decision from a reporter’s question at a press conference.

Similarly, on immigration, Congressional Hispanic Caucus members told Roll Call that they had not been briefed on a potential return to family detentions at a February meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. At the time, Mayorkas was already trying to address their concerns about a separate move towards Trump-era rules requiring asylum seekers to turn to other countries before America. The CHC spoke with Mayorkas again in a virtual meeting on Tuesday, and condemned potential family detentions as a “return to the failed policies of the past” in a joint letter with other Democrats.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J, complained that Biden’s domestic policy operation, headed by Susan Rice, has been cutting immigration doves like himself out in favor of a “reactive” approach to Republican criticism.

“There are other things that can be done to achieve the goals they want, but they do not consult with anyone,” he told Semafor. “I’ve been doing this for the better part of 20-plus years and there are a series of ideas that could be helpful to them that doesn’t follow, like lemmings off the cliff, the Republican mantra on all of that.”


Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. said that the White House was relying on perceptions from “political advisors” that they “got to quell this.”

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The View From The White House

Asked about members’ concerns, an administration official noted that the White House has not yet announced a new position on detention rules.

“There is no decision or policy to notify anyone about at this time, nor has there been,” the official said. “But of course, the administration is in regular contact with the Hill on a host of immigration issues. In fact, Secretary Mayorkas met with the CHC yesterday and last month.”

The Biden administration has strongly pushed back on comparisons to the Trump administration on immigration. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday pointed to Biden’s support for DREAMers, his efforts to reunite families separated at the border under Trump, his opposition to a “useless wall,” his recent expansion of legal routes to asylum, and his increase in the number of refugees allowed into the country.

On crime, Jean-Pierre told reporters last week that, while Biden publicly opposed the House measure to block D.C.’s crime bill, he never said he would veto it if it passed. She added that officials were “constantly in communication” with members.

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The View From A professional centrist

While Democrats are complaining about lack of communication, the core of their disagreements with Biden are mostly over substance. And, as the 33 Democratic Senate votes to overturn DC’s crime bill indicated, the president isn’t alone in wanting to look tough on “law and order” issues ahead of an expected re-election campaign.

“This is the Joe Biden of 2020 who was the most centrist candidate in the field and romped to victory,” Jim Kessler, Executive Vice President for Policy at the moderate think tank Third Way, told Semafor. “Democrats have to be where voters are on crime and immigration. Biden gets that.”

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  • What’s actually in the D.C. crime bill? The Washington Post has a helpful FAQ on its major provisions as well as recent crime trends in the District.