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Reps. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) are calling on President Joe Biden to use executive action to restrict asylum claims and expand work permits for migrants.

Immigration and border security split Democrats

House Democrats are struggling to find their message on border security and immigration even as they push to win the House majority in November.

With former President Donald Trump on his way to the Republican nomination, there’s almost no limit to how hardline GOP lawmakers can get on these issues. Trump has called for deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, large-scale raids to capture them and even limits on birthright citizenship, among other proposals. While Republican incumbents and candidates will have to own all this, there’s also some room for them to moderate. And Americans have turned increasingly negative on immigration, which strengthens the GOP position.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are struggling to find their way on the topic, in large part because President Joe Biden struggled too — at least until the bipartisan Senate border security and immigration talks kicked off. The most vulnerable Democrats want Biden to be more aggressive in using executive orders to respond to the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, while progressives and pro-immigration groups angrily counter that would just play into Republican hands.

Thirty-seven Democrats voted in favor of a GOP-led bill on Thursday that would detain undocumented immigrants accused of theft or burglary. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Mike Collins (R-Ga.) and named for Laken Riley, a college student allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant last month.

Despite disagreements with some of the provisions in the bill, many frontline Democrats — including those running for other offices — begrudgingly backed the measure. Democratic leaders privately told their members to “do whatever they need to do on this,” said a senior Democratic aide, a sign of how sensitive the politics were for Democrats here.

“This is an awful situation,” Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio), who voted for the bill, told us. “There is some symbolism, and I think symbolism matters.”

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), who also voted for the bill, said he didn’t have any red lines for the Biden administration when it came to border and immigration policy.

“We need to provide resources for our border patrol agents. We need to directly attack the fentanyl crisis, and we need to address the broken asylum process,” Horsford said.

Republicans have been hammering the Biden administration for being weak on immigration and border security, accusing vulnerable Democrats of supporting an open-borders agenda.

A February Gallup poll found that 28% of Americans saw immigration as the most important issue this election, which is up dramatically from January.

During his State of the Union address on Thursday, Biden bashed Republicans for blowing up the bipartisan Senate proposal, which included billions of dollars for more border agents while also overhauling the troubled asylum system.

Progressive view: Progressive Democrats and Hispanic lawmakers have warned their colleagues about going too far on immigration, bucking their own party on efforts to take hardline measures on the issue.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has attacked the administration for proposing harsh immigration reform proposals while excluding them from conversations on the issue.

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) dismissed Republicans’ bills on the border as unserious, as well as his frontline colleagues’ support for them.

“These are messaging bills by the majority party to try and campaign on them,” Ruiz told us. “Frontline members are just eliminating that threat, knowing it’s not going anywhere in the Senate.”

Some House Democrats also said they were disappointed that Biden referred to Riley’s alleged killer as an “illegal” during his address, calling that rhetoric dangerous.

“The rhetoric President Biden used tonight was dangerously close to language from Donald Trump that puts a target on the backs of Latinos everywhere,” tweeted Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas). “Democrats shouldn’t be taking our cues from MAGA extremism.”

On the trail: Immigration was the main issue in Rep. Tom Suozzi’s (D-N.Y.) special election last month.

Suozzi went on the offensive to talk about the border. Speaker Mike Johnson even accused him of copying the GOP’s messaging on the issue, but it clearly helped Suozzi win his old seat back.

“He sounded like a Republican talking about border and immigration because that’s the top issue on the hearts and minds of everybody,” Johnson claimed.

But Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) rejected the need for Democrats to play up Republican talking points on the border, pointing to Suozzi calling the flow of illegal immigration an “invasion.”

“I didn’t like that, and I don’t think we need to say that,” Jayapal said. “I think it’s wrong to say that.”

— Mica Soellner and John Bresnahan

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