A group of House Republicans gathered on the southern border Monday to press on with their pivot to “Biden’s border crisis,” claiming that an influx of COVID-19-infected immigrants will set the country back in its fight against the pandemic.
Republicans have increasingly aired their concerns about the spread of COVID-19 at the border, a worry starkly at odds with their stance on the pandemic and desire to reopen society almost everywhere else.
“For our President to think opening the southern border to allow those coming in that are infected with or have been exposed to COVID makes no sense at all,” said Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-NM).
“All the work we’ve done as a country to get our kids educated, open up our economies, ensure we’re doing the right thing to overcome this pandemic — opening the southern border makes no sense,” she added. “We’ve just taken three steps forward and 10 giant steps backwards.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) seemed to head off the GOP presser by blasting out emails about Republicans distracting from the COVID-19 relief package President Joe Biden signed into law last week. One of them, sent out a couple hours before the presser, accused House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) of being “desperate” to distract from the new law.
Immigration will be a major topic on Capitol Hill this week, as the House is poised to vote on bills to provide a pathway to citizenship both for Dreamers and for farm workers in the United States illegally. Both passed the House last session but were not given a vote in the Senate.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday called the border situation, which has seen a surge of migrants, a “big problem” and some facilities that are housing them “heartbreaking.”
“The last administration left us a dismantled and unworkable system, and like any other problem, we are going to do everything we can to solve it,” she told reporters.
The hard turn back to immigration, reminiscent of GOP tactics during the Obama era and particularly before the 2018 midterms, got going in earnest in the last few weeks while Democrats focused on the COVID-19 relief package. McCarthy, who spearheaded the border trip, has been test-running phrases like “Biden border crisis” and “disorder at the border by executive order.”
This new flavor of focus on undocumented immigrants turns less on “caravans” like its previous iterations and more on immigrants as carriers of the COVID-19 virus. Though some, like House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), have managed to do both.
“There are super-spreader caravans coming across our southern border,” he said at a House GOP leadership press conference last week. “I think it’s an interesting misplaced priority that the Biden administration’s agenda is to open America’s borders and close America’s schools.”
While Republicans criticize Biden for his early executive orders on immigration, some progressives are urging him to do more.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and 23 of her Democratic colleagues sent a letter Monday to Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice and Department of Homeland Security Director Alejandro Mayorkas urging them to secure another executive order to phase out contracts between ICE and state, county and local jails and prisons.
“Conditions in municipal, county, and state jails and prisons contracting with ICE to detain immigrants mirror the systemic abuses in privately operated immigration detention facilities, including medical neglect, long term use of solitary confinement, sexual assault, and lack of access to legal counsel,” they wrote, referencing Biden’s executive order to eliminate the use of private prisons.
Meanwhile, the future of Biden’s overarching immigration reform plan is still murky. Democrats in the House initially planned to bring the package to a vote this month but lacked the votes. They now reportedly expect the bill to come before the House Judiciary Committee in April, though possibly with some elements stripped out.