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Political Memo: Key Takeaways for the Biden White House on Friday’s Refugee Announcements

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The following is by Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, a strong supporter of President Biden’s immigration and refugee platform.

What lessons should the Biden administration learn from last Friday’s back and forth over refugee numbers? As someone who has been immersed in immigration politics and policy for decades, here are my top takeaways. The immigration debate is not about numbers anchored in fears, it’s about solutions anchored in our values. Step back and you’ll get run over. Lean in and you’ll win. 

Trust your heart, Mr. President. You got this. As for strategy, here are some thoughts:

  • The White House needs to stay true to its values and resist right wing framing. President Biden and Democrats embrace refugees and immigrants, and want an immigration system that is humane and orderly. Republicans believe that America admits “too many of the wrong kind,” and want an immigration system that slashes numbers. GOP leaders use the dog whistle of numbers to stoke their white grievance base and to pretend their xenophobia is based on policy. The good news is that the multiracial majority that elected Biden is onto them. In poll after poll, Democrats win big in head-to-heads between the Democratic and the Republican frames on immigration. 
  • Stay the course: confront challenges, embrace values, deliver solutions. During the campaign, Biden’s genius on immigration (as well as on other issues) was that he found  the sweet spot of values and policies that united the fractious Democratic coalition. On immigration, he thrilled the left and center-left with his humane embrace of immigrants and refugees – without alienating the center; and he appealed to more moderate and conservative centrists by promising the immigration system would be lawful and orderly – without alienating the left. This both/and approach is the coalition’s sweet spot. On one of our nation’s most complex issues, Biden won over the multiracial majority that elected him. As a result, nativism as a wedge issue lost much of its edge. 
  • This difference in frames explains why Friday’s initial announcement backfired. The reason the initial refugee announcement upset supporters (and pleased Stephen Miller) is because it spoke to numbers and optics rather than solutions and values. The Democratic coalition wants to welcome refugees through an orderly system. A robust and revitalized refugee admissions program welcomes refugees through an orderly system. Generosity is good. Undoing Trump’s cruelty is good. The announcement however, came off sounding as if fewer is better, and maybe Trump was onto something. This fell on the other side of the line from where the Democratic coalition stands. In contrast, the clarification that came later in the afternoon landed squarely in Democratic turf, and as a result was well-received. 
  • Let Biden be Biden: lean in and deliver big. After some initial stumbles, candidate Biden found his voice on immigration. He advocated for solutions rooted in our values. He  ignored the right wing noise about “open borders.” In the last debate, he leaned in, took the fight to Trump over family separation, and promised to fight for a new roadmap to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. His campaign even followed up with an unprecedented pro-immigrant ad campaign. He won. Similarly, in his first press conference, and under pressure from multiple reporter questions, he leaned in. He talked about the humanity of the migrants and refugees. He proposed orderly solutions rooted in our values. He won. The President at his best is bold, leans in, speaks of solutions and values, and promises to solve longstanding challenges. 
  • Hold your nerve, resist the reflex to deploy cruelty, and speak to who we want to be. Yes, the right wing media ecosystem and Republican members of Congress are cranking this issue up every day and in every way. Yes, too many in the mainstream media have adopted the right wing framing. Yes, too many are calling the border a crisis when the crisis is in Central America. And yes, too many are making the silly claim that the President’s “messaging” accounts for the increase in arrivals. But no, these tactical challenges need not not overwhelm us. Actually, the opportunity is huge. If the President holds his nerve and resists the reflex to use cruelty to deal with political pressures, he can forge a workable immigration system that is, at once, both orderly and humane. This is what the majority who elected the President support: 1) an America that welcomes immigrants and refugees from every corner of the globe through a safe, regulated and humane system; and 2) legislative breakthroughs that formally recognize deeply-rooted undocumented immigrants as the Americans they already are. Fortunately, we have a President willing and able to deliver the change Americans want.