Opinion 4 big ways Democrats can unmask MAGA extremism — and help the country

Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), during a discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 17. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Throughout 2022, Republicans successfully wielded immigration as a potent issue to divide Democrats. Under pressure from GOP attacks on President Biden’s “border crisis,” vulnerable Democrats backed onerous restrictions on asylum-seeking and supported other harsh measures that were nonstarters for most others in their party.

Now, the situation has reversed itself. House Republicans had planned to vote on a border security bill, but it has been shelved, The Post reports, because “dozens” of Republicans are “rattled” by how radical and unserious it is. This creates an opening for Democrats to use immigration as a wedge themselves.

If Democrats handle this effectively, they can demonstrate a split between the small number of Republicans open to real reforms and the larger number who are too captive to extreme elements in the party to entertain anything serious. This could have a constructive impact on the debate that more moderate Republicans should welcome.

Here are four things Democrats can do along these lines:


Use amendments to highlight GOP divisions

The GOP’s border-security-only bill would mean a functional end to asylum-seeking as we know it, for reasons detailed here last week. The dozens of Republicans balking at the bill cite its onerous restrictions on asylum, and its focus on only “border security,” with some calling for it to include legalization for farm workers and “dreamers” brought here as children.

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Faced with this rebellion, GOP leaders appear prepared to subject the bill to a committee process and to amendments, The Post reports.

If so, Democrats could try to offer amendments that would legalize dreamers, farm workers and migrants currently enjoying temporary protected status. Amendments could replace the onerous restrictions on asylum-seeking with something more balanced.

One model could be the bill negotiated by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) in the last Congress. It would legalize 2 million dreamers and pump massive resources into speeding up processing of asylum seekers, while expediting removal of nonqualifying migrants — which Republicans who hate our “border crisis” should support.

These amendments could show that most House Republicans are hostile to balanced reforms. But — and this is crucial — they could also show that a small number can support such reforms.

“A smart strategy could give more moderate Republicans a chance to say they want a balanced approach,” immigration advocate Frank Sharry tells me. “This could show there’s a bipartisan majority in the House for a package that combines asylum reform and legalization.”


Pursue bipartisan talks with genuine purpose

GOP leaders would probably never allow a full vote on a package of asylum reform and legalization, just as they blocked full votes on reform during Barack Obama’s presidency. But that would illustrate the point: Once again, they can’t allow a vote on a balanced approach, precisely because it could pass.

This could give Democrats an opening to attempt bipartisan talks with more moderate Republicans. One might be Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (Fla.), who has become outspoken in rejecting the GOP border-security-only bill and in championing legalization for dreamers and protections for farm workers.

Why not seek House bipartisan talks around something that would combine such measures with asylum reforms?

“You could have a House bipartisan working group,” Lia Parada, director of legislative advocacy at Immigration Hub, tells me. “The fact that the moderates are killing bills is a good sign.”

Such a group, Parada suggests, could work in conjunction with senators who are currently reviving Senate talks on the Tillis-Sinema proposal.


Try a discharge petition on immigration

There’s been a lot of talk about using the discharge petition process to force a House vote on a debt ceiling increase without the GOP leadership’s assent. Why not try it on immigration?

That could be one end goal of illustrating that there is a bipartisan consensus position available on reform. This could give House Republicans calling for such a consensus a way to demonstrate they mean it.

“Are they doing this just for show?” asks Tom Jawetz, a former senior lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security. “Or do they actually want to assert some power to get something done?”


Elevate southwestern Democrats as advocates for a bipartisan approach

Because of Democratic successes in the Southwest, in the four border states, six out of eight senators now caucus with Democrats. They are well positioned to argue for a bipartisan approach that includes the reforms in the Tillis-Sinema bill.

Those senators can encourage a bipartisan group in the House to undertake their own effort — particularly Republicans such as Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas, who loudly denounces MAGA’s hijacking of the GOP.

The immigration reform graveyard is littered with comprehensive approaches. Their sheer size made it easier for the right to attack and harder for reformist Republicans to explain it to angry constituents.

A targeted approach would allow more moderate Republicans to get behind something bipartisan. By drawing out the extremism of MAGA foes, it would give those rebels something to define themselves against. The odds are tremendously long, but southwestern Democrats can try to lead the way. Will they?

“Rather than an all-or-nothing approach, Democrats can divide the opposition and achieve the policy high ground by proposing to make the system less dysfunctional and protecting discrete classes of migrants,” Chris Newman, counsel for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told me. “The new leaders in the Southwest can define the terms of debate along these lines.”