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In Arizona, Biden’s handling of immigration fuels frustration among key voters

PHOENIX — Ricardo Villafan, a Democrat and son of Mexican immigrants, had hope when Joe Biden was elected that he might pursue a more compassionate immigration agenda than his predecessor. But President Biden’s latest embrace of strict policies to contain the influx of migrants coming to the U.S. southern border has left him disappointed.

Sitting here at a downtown beer garden, Villafan and several other members of the Maricopa County Young Democrats unloaded their frustration over how they feel Biden — and Washington in general — has failed to tackle immigration, an issue that is front-of-mind and personal for many living in this border state.

“It’s not just Republicans. Democrats, too, like to push the narrative that we’re being invaded — and as a registered Democrat, it’s really hurtful to see because my parents came here wanting to seek a better life,” Villafan, 23, said just a three-hour drive north from Arizona’s shared border with Mexico.

But across the table, Sam Dent, 32, an independent who was among the swing voters who voted for Biden in 2020 and helped deliver the battleground state, has long worried about repeated failures by Democrats and Republicans to pass a compromise that tackles the major influx of migrants crossing the border — including a bipartisan proposal this month that Republicans shot down.

Dent looked down at his phone to fact-check to confirm the historic number of migrant crossings, before saying: “Border security is a problem. Immigration policy in America is a problem. I honestly think it’s a real problem.”

Interviews with dozens of Democratic and independent voters here — the kind of younger voters Biden will need to win over in a potential rematch against former president Donald Trump — reveal a deep frustration with the president for recently embracing tougher rhetoric and policies against illegal immigration while delivering what they view as little concrete action to improve the immigration system. Many voters said it felt unclear what message, if any, Biden or the party had on the issue — and most said Biden’s handling of immigration further reinforces their lack of enthusiasm about a potential second Biden term.

Immigration has long been a fraught issue for both parties, especially in election years. Republicans have slammed Biden on his handling of the high numbers of migrant crossings since the start of the administration and have ramped up attacks in recent months. The issue has also become increasingly divisive for the Democratic Party as the president tries to prove he has been an effective leader capable of addressing acute challenges, such as the fallout from large numbers of migrants coming that has overwhelmed cities across the country.

Many voters interviewed here had differing views on the severity of the situation at the U.S. border and the concrete solutions Biden could pursue — but, they all said, they don’t trust either party to do anything other than talk it up in an election year. Here, where immigration has topped the minds of Arizonans for decades, younger voters said they’ve grown up disillusioned and distrustful after empty promises from politicians across the political spectrum.

Caleb Campbell, an independent and lead pastor at Desert Springs Bible Church, an evangelical church, has been particularly impassioned on immigration policy for years as multiple members of his church are undocumented or recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to live and work in the country without fear of deportation. Under both Trump and Biden, he’s seen both leaders and their parties fail to act, which he says “has been infuriating.” He expressed frustration that so much of the debate on immigration these days is focused on the border.

“I’m pissed off that the people who should be and know better and who should be enacting legislation to alleviate these problems are shrugging off the responsibilities for political gain,” Campbell, 42, said shortly after a recent Sunday service. “It’s unrighteous, it’s unjust and you see them doing this for political gain on both sides.”

“Disappointment is not a strong enough word,” he added.

Among these voters, both left-leaning and moderates, few could identify a specific Biden administration action that has improved the immigration system. Several said they feel Biden has been largely silent on the issue and is now adopting conservative talking points that focus on securing the border. They worry his shift in rhetoric is because Republicans are winning in their messaging on the issue — not because he actually cares about addressing the challenges at the border.

For some, it’s a betrayal after they’d been hopeful Biden would overhaul the immigration system as he had promised on the campaign trail.

“I don’t like that Biden caved into the Republican Party,” Villafan said, though he plans to support Biden, praising the president’s policies for working class and union families, and is urging his co-workers and friends to vote for him in the battleground state where Biden won by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2020.

But his friend, Anna Abeytia, 28, said Biden “hasn’t done anything, especially with immigration, to make me want to support him.”

“I don’t feel like voting for him or not voting for him is gonna change anything here in Arizona,” said Abeytia, a part-time student and board member of the Cartwright Elementary School District.

In his early days in office in 2021, Biden was quick to take executive actions as he sought to undo controversial Trump-era policies, such as lifting the bans on travel to the United States from several Muslim-majority countries and suspending enrollment in the “Remain in Mexico” program that required asylum seekers to stay in Mexico to await their immigration proceedings in U.S. courts. On his first day as president, Biden also sent Congress an immigration bill that included a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

For three years, Biden has been faced with an unprecedented number of migrant crossings overwhelming border agents. Facing pressure from within his party, Biden recently embraced a bipartisan border bill that would have included significant funding for ICE enforcement at the border, a higher standard for migrants seeking asylum to meet and a mechanism to effectively close the border to most migrants when crossings are particularly high. The bill was endorsed by the staunchly conservative union for Border Patrol officers and slammed by many immigrant and human rights groups. Amnesty International USA said it contained “the most extreme anti-immigrant proposals this country has seen in 100 years.”

The bill quickly failed, after Trump — who openly said he did not want to give Biden a political win — pressured Senate Republicans to reject it.

While many voters said they felt Biden has largely ignored immigration, his administration has taken more than 530 immigration-related executive actions in his first three years in office, outnumbering the 472 undertaken by Trump in his full term, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

But there are limits to what Biden can accomplish through executive orders. Biden has faced several court challenges on his immigration-related executive actions, which has stalled or curbed some of his administration’s efforts, and Congress has failed to pass any meaningful immigration reform in decades.

According to a survey from Pew Research Center released this month, 73 percent of Democrats say the United States is doing a bad job of dealing with the large number of migrants seeking to enter the country — the highest share recorded during Biden’s presidency. In October, a New York Times-Siena College survey found that, among registered voters in Arizona, 54 percent trusted Trump more on immigration while 41 percent trusted Biden.

Democratic and independent voters said the current handling of immigration policy only reinforced their negative outlook on the future of the country.

Among a group of members of Young Democrats at Arizona State University in Tempe, students expressed their dismay about how Biden has tackled immigration.

“To me, it just doesn’t feel like there’s a difference in like Trump or Biden when it comes to immigration because the same thing is happening,” said Gillian McSheffrey, 20, a sophomore at ASU, on a recent Friday afternoon. “It’s kind of embarrassing to be a Democrat sometimes because it feels like no one really cares, in either party, about the issue.”

Sitting in a classroom on campus, McSheffrey and her fellow Democrats cited example after example of how they felt Biden had disappointed them on immigration. They mentioned Biden’s support of the bipartisan bill, which included no pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. They pointed to Biden’s plan to build new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. They criticized Biden for embracing foreign policy for decades that they feel has contributed to destabilizing the very countries where many migrants hail from.

“It feels so heartless,” McSheffrey added.

Agustín Torres, 21, a junior at ASU, nodded in agreement.

“I do think there’s a crisis though on the border. There are a lot of people coming over and that really makes me nervous,” Torres said.

Torres’ family crossed the border illegally more than 100 years ago, he said, so he felt confident that immigrants coming today could assimilate and contribute to the United States if the immigration system were better organized to accept them.

On Biden, Torres said he’s not sure if he can support the president in November, calling him an “extraordinarily weak candidate,” who “hasn’t really delivered on what he said.” On immigration, he said Biden has done a “very poor job.” But he said members of Congress also carry a lot of the blame for their “unwillingness to act.”

“It’s exhausting,” said Gem Wolf-Schwaiger, 19, who uses they and them pronouns. “So many empty words when there should be more done.”

Wolf-Schwaiger said they could understand people in the United States being alarmed by so many migrants entering the country, but they felt politicians needed to stoke less fear and just do more — like better fund the immigration court system and create more legal pathways to come to the United States.

But given the attacks from Republicans on transgender and queer rights, Wolf-Schwaiger said they felt they had to vote for Biden.

“I wish I felt like I had another option,” Wolf-Schwaiger said as their service dog Echo, sporting a blue Young Dems shirt, lay beside them.

McSheffrey said she will vote for Biden come November, but she isn’t excited about it. It’ll be her first time voting in a presidential election.

“It just feels like we’re in the same place as we were four years ago,” McSheffrey said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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