April 29, 2022 - 5:41pm

On May 23, the Biden administration is expected to lift Title 42, a Trump-era policy that gives the federal government wide authority to block non-citizens from entering the country “when doing so is required in the interest of public health.” The rule has long been reviled by progressives and immigration advocates, and on a purely legal basis, it makes little sense for the government to continue claiming emergency pandemic powers at a time when it is dropping most other Covid restrictions. 

And yet, the decision to lift Title 42 — currently the most effective tool for turning away would-be migrants (1.8 million have been turned away since March 2020) — comes at an inopportune time for Democrats. Without it, illegal immigration is almost certain to skyrocket, even as Democrats are already facing strong headwinds leading into this autumn’s midterms as a result of inflation and economic contraction. Recognising the danger, a number of swing-state Democrats — including Beto O’Rourke and Senators Mark Kelly and Maggie Hassan — have sought to pressure the administration to avoid lifting the rule until it has come up with a credible plan for post-Title 42 border security. 

This conflict comes at a time of intense intra-Democratic argument over how to respond to successful Republican attacks on “culture war” issues ranging from immigration to education and crime. Centre-Left pundits such as Matt Yglesias, Jonathan Chait, and Ruy Teixeira have repeatedly argued that the Democrats are hurting because voters associate it with unpopular progressive positions and cultural stances. As such, the party needs to either repudiate Left-wing excesses or seek to lower their salience. 

More recently, however, writers like Jamelle Bouie and Greg Sargent have urged the opposite course, calling on their party to go on offence in an attempt to galvanise the Democratic base. Now, some progressives are urging a similar stance on the border. As Democratic strategist Sawyer Hackett recently explained to the New Republic:

I just feel like this is a giant miscalculation from these Senate candidates because the public obviously doesn’t have the best understanding of what Title 42 is and what it does. If these candidates were making an affirmative case for what asylum is in this country — that is the system we’ve had in place for decades where the United States can be a place of refuge for people fleeing desperate situations, that would be a thing that people support.
- Sawyer Hackett

Hackett echoes the language coming out of progressive nonprofits such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, which have derided Title 42 as a racist attack on the U.S. asylum system and urged the administration to repeal it regardless of political consequences. 

The problem, for progressives, is that no change in rhetorical emphasis is likely to change political realities, at least in the near term. Democratic voters, by and large, do not care at all about illegal immigration, and Democratic pressure groups tend to favour a stance of de facto open borders. But 60% of Americans and 56% of independents worry either “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about illegal immigration, and one poll from early April found that lifting Title 42 was Biden’s single most unpopular policy decision. Dismissing these concerns as the product of GOP propaganda and “hate” — especially if the end of Title 42 leads to the predicted border surge — is a recipe for further Democratic failure.

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet