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Biden confronts a trio of setbacks with Black and immigrant groups

Aerial video without audio shows more than 10,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, in a camp under the Del Rio International Bridge in southern Texas on Sept. 18. (Video: Arelis Hernández, Sergio Flores/The Washington Post)

On the question of whether President Biden will continue to benefit from Democratic majorities in Congress after the 2022 election, few things matter more than Black and Hispanic voters.

Not only are they a huge and growing portion of the Democratic base, but their turnout tends to lag White voters in midterm elections — which are already generally tough for the president’s party. Combine that with the Democrats’ extremely narrow House and Senate majorities, and it means minding that part of the base is particularly important.

On that front, the Biden administration has suffered a series of setbacks in recent days.

Over the weekend, the Senate parliamentarian punctured Democrats’ hopes of getting a more easily passed path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in their infrastructure bill. By early this week, images of the U.S. Border Patrol’s harsh treatment of would-be Haitian refugees added fuel to a growing fire on the left over the Biden administration’s immigration policy. And Wednesday brought an apparent end to the push for the broad-based police reform Biden has frequently played up.

The big one right now is the border.

That situation has in many ways united both immigrant and civil rights groups against Biden in an unprecedented way. The administration has continued the Trump administration’s use of a provision called Title 42, which allows for expedited deportation during a health emergency like the coronavirus, to deport Haitian immigrants without assessing their asylum claims. This was already a sore spot on the left.

The situation blew up, though, when we saw video and images of Border Patrol on horseback aggressively using the horses and reins to try to prevent the passage of the immigrants.

The whole thing drew a highly unusual rebuke Tuesday from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who accused the Biden administration of emulating Biden’s predecessor.

“I urge President Biden to put a stop to these expulsions and to end this Title 42 policy at our southern border,” Schumer said. “We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws.”

The NAACP was also blunt in attaching this to the Biden administration’s policies, rather than circumstance.

“The humanitarian crisis happening under this administration on the southern border disgustingly mirrors some of the darkest moments in America’s history,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said Tuesday.

By Wednesday, the NAACP was joined by nearly every major civil rights group in the country in a letter saying Biden’s campaign promises of a more humane immigration policy “are being shredded before our eyes.”

Biden is clearly being pushed into a corner on the issue. He’s been attacked from the right throughout his presidency for the border surge — for being too soft on immigration — and now it’s also coming from the left, which argues he’s being too harsh.

The fact that the current circumstance deals not just with immigrants but Black immigrants — which many civil rights groups regard as suffering from even worse treatment than Hispanic immigrants — makes this something of a perfect storm for the administration.

Another setback on an issue of particular import to Black voters came in an announcement Wednesday that police reform efforts had fallen through.

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) had been working together for months, along with Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), on a framework that appeared to have some promise.

But both Booker and Scott said Wednesday that they had reached an impasse, with Booker saying he had offered Scott a bare-minimum proposal and that it was rejected. Scott said he will “never walk away from the table” but, in a telling portion of his statement, suggested Democrats had reverted “to a partisan approach to score political points.” Scott also echoed the broader GOP’s attacks on the relatively few Democrats who have pushed for defunding the police.

Political rhetoric, yes, but also the kind of political rhetoric that usually comes when a bipartisan deal is truly out of reach.

A key portion of Biden’s agenda for Hispanic voters was also stifled over the weekend by the Senate parliamentarian, who is in charge of interpreting Senate rules. Elizabeth MacDonough determined that Democrats couldn’t include a path to citizenship for as many as 8 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in the infrastructure package they aim to pass via the reconciliation process. Democrats hoped to include it in the bill because the measure is not subject to the usual 60-vote threshold under the Senate’s filibuster rules.

The Senate parliamentarian serves as a check on rules and precedents. But recent partisan fights over policy have put the parliamentarian in the spotlight. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Given the decades-long inability by Congress to forge a deal on comprehensive immigration reform, this appears to foreclose for now perhaps the last, best hope to get the path to citizenship that Biden ran on.

This last one was a long shot to begin with, and perhaps Democrats will get credit for trying. Also, as any defender of the administration will tell you, both the lack of a path to citizenship and a police reform bill would owe in very large part to united GOP opposition to Biden’s agenda.

But in elections, those distinctions often matter little to voters. What matters is deliverables: Has this administration accomplished what it set out to do on the things I care about? And more specifically, has it been an improvement upon the last administration on the things I care about?

Black voters in particular have long been a hugely important Democratic voting group, having turned out in especially high numbers to vote for the first Black president, Barack Obama. They also effectively kept Biden alive early in the 2020 nominating contest.

Hispanic voters are perhaps an even bigger question — not just from a turnout perspective, but given that they swung toward Trump somewhat in the general election. That said, most of those swings were in Florida and Texas, which aren’t really the decisive states these days. And a UCLA study found Biden’s huge margins among Hispanic voters played a major role in helping him carry other states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Those two states are also holding key Senate contests in 2022. And these voters will carry particular importance in other diverse states holding Senate races, including Arizona, Georgia and Nevada.

Given all of that, it makes the situation at the border most troublesome for the administration — particularly given so many on the left are effectively saying the Biden administration is continuing the kind of Trump administration policies they railed against. The choice for Biden now is between doubling down and choosing a less-restrictive policy that might satisfy these groups but could encourage immigrants to show up at the border — thus feeding a growing crisis that polls show has already damaged Biden.

The administration’s decision will speak volumes about where its priorities are — and how it views the importance of these portions of the Democratic base moving forward.