A group of Venezuelan migrants negotiate razor wire in September 2023 as they cross into the United States from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

A group of Venezuelan migrants negotiate razor wire in September 2023 as they cross into the United States from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (Michael Robinson Chávez/The Washington Post)

Democratic Mayor Eric Adams of New York City traveled to Mexico in a high-profile move to discourage illegal immigration. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois has written President Biden a sharply worded letter demanding more help. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors, a nonpartisan group led by a Democrat, unanimously declared the lack of federal resources for asylum seekers a “humanitarian crisis.”

Four months after White House officials spoke in victorious tones about an unexpected plunge in illegal migration, Biden is once again under growing pressure to address a surge in border crossings that shows no sign of slowing down. And the most notable criticism is coming from his own party.

That could pose a significant political threat as Biden faces a potential rematch against former president Donald Trump, who rode the immigration issue to the White House in 2016 with promises of a border wall, a ban on Muslim travelers and other harsh measures.

With near-record numbers of daily arrivals, shelters overflowing with families and city governments overwhelmed by new residents, one of the most intractable challenges of Biden’s presidency is again threatening to upend his legislative agenda. Republicans have become increasingly vocal in challenging the president’s management of the crisis, but what is especially notable — and concerning to the White House — is the unusually blunt language from Democratic officials.

“The federal government’s lack of intervention and coordination at the border has created an untenable situation for Illinois,” Pritzker, a potential future presidential candidate, wrote in his scathing letter to Biden last week.

“There is no more room in New York,” Adams said Thursday while in Mexico City, his first stop on a three-country tour aimed at trying to discourage migrants from crossing into the United States and continuing on to his city.

Adams has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the president, but major cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, San Diego and Denver are all struggling to manage the sudden arrival of thousands of migrants and have pleaded for more help, funding and coordination from the federal government.

Republicans are hitting Biden even harder. Some are threatening to hold up aid to Ukraine unless it is accompanied by funds to protect the U.S.-Mexico border. Republican presidential candidates are promising, if they are elected, to send troops into Mexico to battle drug cartels. And Republican governors played a key role in the new dynamic by busing thousands of migrants into cities and states run by Democrats.

While the renewed criticism is coming at a challenging time for Biden, as he ramps up his reelection campaign, he has faced political crosswinds on immigration from the outset of his presidency, caught between a desire to overturn Trump’s hard-line policies and the risk of inviting chaos at the border.

Republicans pounced as border crossings rose when he took office, fueled by migrants’ expectations of a more relaxed policy. Later that year liberals were upset by photos of border agents aggressively pursuing Haitian migrants. Biden reversed himself several times on how much to lift Trump’s limit on refugees. He did not immediately lift the Title 42 border policy, a pandemic-era measure that limited immigration, angering some in his own party.

White House officials say the president is doing everything possible to deal with an overwhelmingly difficult situation, given Congress’s decades-long inability to enact legislative solutions to address a problem that has vexed multiple administrations. In recent weeks, Biden has authorized new work permits for migrants from Venezuela, provided additional money to local governments for migrant shelter and services and stepped up deportations for people who entered the country illegally.

Most dramatically, the Biden administration last week said it would bypass environmental and conservation laws to fast-track construction of new barriers along the border — a highly symbolic move given Democrats’ longtime criticism of Trump’s proposed border wall. On Friday, Biden again reiterated his contention that his hands were tied because Congress had provided funding for the barriers.

“I was told that I had no choice,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “Congress passes legislation to build something, whether it’s an aircraft carrier or a wall or provide for a tax cut, and I can’t say, ‘I don’t like it and I’m not going to do it.’” Earlier that same week, asked if he believed a border wall would be effective, Biden said “no.”

There is little evidence the push to enter the United States will abate over the long term. During the past three years, federal agents have made more than 6 million arrests along the southern border, the busiest span in the 100-year history of the U.S. Border Patrol.

And the politics of immigration have only become more fraught. Biden campaigned in 2020 pledging to undo many of the strict migration policies enacted by Trump, but has found himself embracing a growing number of those policies in the face of the persistently high border crossings.

The latest flash point came in May with the expiration of the pandemic-era Title 42 border policy, which had allowed authorities to quickly expel migrants back to Mexico or their home countries.

Since then, the Biden administration has sought to pair new legal opportunities for migrants with harsher penalties for illegal entry. Under new asylum rules, the administration provided thousands of migrants with new pathways to legally enter each month via programs like the CBP One app, while also making it easier to deport people who do not abide by the rules.

Biden’s aides declared that this multifaceted plan was working in June, when the number of unauthorized entries fell by nearly 70 percent. But the reprieve proved to be short-lived.

Now again facing a rapid increase in migration, the Biden administration announced Thursday it would resume deporting Venezuelan migrants back to their country. The decision came less than a month after the administration had extended legal status to nearly 500,000 Venezuelans who were already in the United States.

Along the way, Biden himself has rarely addressed these policy shifts publicly, as his actions have managed to upset a wide range of stakeholders, including those traditionally aligned with him on other matters. Democrats including Sen. Alex Padilla (Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) have blasted the administration’s decision to move forward with barrier construction.

The president’s approach reflects an administration that is “scared of the issue,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice.

“Not talking about the issue is not a strategy to win,” Cárdenas said, adding that she approved of some of Biden’s recent actions but felt he should be more proactive in laying out his broader vision for voters ahead of next year’s election. “Because in the absence of that answer, the other side is going to take over the debate like they’ve been doing.”

Republican presidential candidates seeking to oust Biden from the White House next year are increasingly leaning into border politics. During the second GOP presidential debate last month, the candidates spent much of the night attacking Biden’s immigration policies and presenting themselves as more capable of reducing the flow of migration.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) used his answer to the very first question of the debate, about the United Auto Workers strike, to pivot abruptly to the migration issue.

“I’ll say this, Joe Biden should not be on the picket line,” Scott said. “He should be on the southern border working to close our southern border because it is unsafe, wide open and insecure.”

Trump, the leading contender for the Republican nomination, has promised to conduct mass deportations if he regains the White House. He presents his White House tenure as a time of more effective management of the border, despite the pitched legal and political battles that erupted over his policies separating families at the border and blocking travel from several Muslim-majority countries.

The Trump campaign last week cited Biden’s decision to proceed with additional border barriers as a tacit admission that Trump’s own “build-the-wall” approach to immigration, much pilloried by Democrats, was sound. On social media, Trump called for an apology from Biden, who has criticized his predecessor’s border crackdown as inhumane and cruel.

Recent polls showcase why Republicans see a political benefit in elevating the issue ahead of next year’s elections.

Less than 1 in 4 Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the immigration situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a September Washington Post-ABC News poll. That’s down from 28 percent who said they approved in February.

A Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday showed voters preferred Trump over Biden on the issue of immigration by a 23-point margin, with only 27 percent choosing the current president. Unusually high disapproval among Democrats is one factor driving the president’s poll numbers on immigration.

The White House has been holding calls and meetings with Democratic officials from New York, Illinois and other locations to coordinate and strategize, according to administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal efforts.

Last weekend, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, senior adviser Tom Perez and others spoke with Pritzker, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and other local officials to discuss the challenge and offer federal support. Yet on Monday, Pritzker sent his letter to Biden, using the word “untenable” four times to describe the “humanitarian crisis.”

The administration has allocated more than $1 billion to help cities deal with the surge of migration, and the president has asked Congress to provide more funding and other legislative fixes to address the problem. Republicans in the House have rebuffed Biden’s request and instead accused him of promoting “open border” policies that have attracted millions of migrants to come to the United States from across the globe.

White House officials counter that the far-reaching spending cuts proposed by House Republicans would decimate an already overburdened Department of Homeland Security.

The matter could soon come to a head in the midst of turmoil in the House of Representatives, where Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was ousted as speaker last week amid the dissatisfaction of some hard-line conservatives over his approach to spending bills.

Some Republicans now say they will block any new funding for the war in Ukraine until legislation boosting border enforcement is passed, linking two seemingly unrelated issues by saying the United States needs to protect its own borders rather than Ukraine’s. Other Republican lawmakers have threatened to allow the government to shut down next month, when the current stopgap spending measure expires, if Biden does not agree to major changes in border policy.

“This is a lawless Biden regime,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said last week on the House floor. “They will not enforce border laws. And we can pass them until we’re blue in the face but until you leverage the budget and the spending, you will not see enforcement by this administration.”

Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.

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