On his first day in office, President Biden sent a bill to Congress to “restore humanity and American values to our immigration system.” Nearly three years later, he is considering sweeping immigration restrictions in exchange for aid to Ukraine and Israel.
It’s the latest sign of how dramatically immigration policy has changed in the United States, where polls suggest there is growing support, even within the president’s own party, for border measures once denounced by Democrats and supported by former President Donald Trump.
But it is also a gamble for Biden, who risks moving away from some of the Democratic Party’s most deeply held principles and angering key parts of his core electorate, such as progressives and young voters.
“There’s no question that there’s been a shift in this sense, in part because of the influx of these migrants into these big cities,” said David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama. “There are limits to where it can and should go, but this is almost a gift to have, under the cover of this broad package, to be able to do things that perhaps were harder to do before.”
The southern border represents a political vulnerability for Biden, who has been unable to contain record numbers of migrants heading north to escape gang violence, poverty and natural disasters. Republican-led states have sent busloads of migrants to liberal bastions like Washington and New York to protest what they call Biden’s failed policies.
With the increase in border crossings, the political center of gravity on the issue has shifted sharply to the right. Polls by The New York Times and Siena College in battleground states found that voters preferred Trump to Biden on immigration by 12 points.
Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, a left-leaning Democrat, said his position on limiting immigration puts him at odds with the liberal wing of his party.
“I’m not a progressive,” said Mr. Fetterman told NBC News.
And some of the country’s most prominent Democratic governors and mayors, whose communities are stressed by the costs of providing for migrants, have pressed Biden to find new ways to address the crisis.
The fact that Republicans have refused to support further aid for Ukraine without a new crackdown on immigration could give Biden that opportunity, pollsters, political experts and some Democrats said.
Biden has said he is willing to make “significant compromises” on border security to satisfy Republicans, who say they will not support further aid to Ukraine without a new crackdown on immigration.
Some of the proposals on the table include making it more difficult to obtain asylum in the United States, which the White House has signaled it is willing to consider. The idea would be to raise the standards that migrants must meet when they say they need asylum in the United States because they fear persecution in their home countries.
But Republicans also want to limit the use of an immigration policy known as humanitarian parole, which has allowed thousands of Afghans, Ukrainians and others fleeing war and violence to come to the United States. The Democrats have not yet accepted this proposal.
Republicans and Democrats are also debating a policy that would quickly turn people away at the border once border apprehensions reach a certain level.
“It was pretty clear that they were considering things that were going to be controversial,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said this week of the White House’s approach to the negotiations. “Changes need to be made to our policy at the border.”
Negotiations continued over the weekend, but there were no signs of a potential breakthrough before the end of the year. And even though the White House and Democrats have not approved the restrictions, the mere fact that they are considering them has angered progressives and immigration advocates.
“I just think it’s unfortunate that we constantly do this, where we accept and try to exclude Republican Republicans,” said Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It has never worked. The enforcement-only strategy doesn’t work.”
Ms. Jayapal is one of many progressives who appear to have reached a boiling point with the White House. They say the recent poll fails to ask voters about the long-term effects of the policies under consideration, which they say would include deporting refugees seeking refuge in the United States and breaking up families.
“Throwing immigrants under the bus — which I’ve seen happen time and time again — is not a good election strategy,” Ms. Jayapal said.
Biden aides say he is trying to find a compromise to secure the financial aid Ukraine needs to win the war against Russia. They say Biden’s approach is not comparable to that of Trump, who separated thousands of families at the border.
Asked about potentially embracing Trump-era policies in exchange for aid, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week that the White House strategy is consistent with Biden’s approach in past Capitol negotiations Hill.
“We understand that in order to compromise and get things done on behalf of the American people, we need to find a bipartisan way to do it,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.
But some party members fear the policies will drive away asylum seekers for years to come.
Rep. Gabe Vasquez, Democrat of New Mexico, said Democrats “need to look beyond today’s political moment and what the polls say.”
Karun Demirjian AND Hamed Aleaziz contributed to the reporting.