san antonio migrants
A Trump-era border policy is set to end. Here's what could happen next
03:18 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Where’s the plan?

That’s the question at the heart of a deep divide inside the Democratic Party over immigration and the Biden administration’s plan to end Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that allowed border patrol agents to turn migrants back to their home countries more than 1.7 million times.

So far, says border state Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat – who also happens to be up for reelection this fall – there’s no good answer.

“There hasn’t been enough preparation. There hasn’t been a plan put in place,” Kelly told CNN in an interview on Capitol Hill late last week.

He added, “We don’t have the basics of, ‘how are you going to handle 18,000 individuals a day safely and in accordance with our ethics and principles?’ That plan I haven’t seen yet.”

This intra-party fight pits progressives eager for a sharp break from draconian Trump-era immigration policies against vulnerable moderates up for reelection in swing states who’ve seen first hand how Republicans weaponize the issue in elections.

Kelly is just one of over a dozen moderate Democrats who’ve disagreed in public with the administration’s plan to end Title 42 by the end of May.

“Right now some of the actions by the administration are not helping Democrats,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who was forced into a runoff against his progressive primary challenger for reelection to his House seat.

But many of those concerned live thousands of miles from the southern border – like Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire, who took a selfie video in front of a section of the wall along the border in Nogales, Arizona.

“I’m going to keep pushing the administration to develop a really strong strategic plan for how we will secure our border when Title 42 is lifted,” she said to the camera. “And I’m going to keep pushing them to delay lifting Title 42 until that plan is in place.”

Hassan’s situation helps explain the political bind the Biden administration finds itself in on the issue. She needs to win over independent voters in her reelection campaign this fall – but her video sparked intense backlash from activists on the left in her home state.

“What happened to you? You tokenized us to talk negatively about the previous administration, but now you’re utilizing immigrants to win some votes. Shame on you,” New Hampshire state Rep. Maria Perez said in a speech on the floor of the state House. “Shame on you for using humans just to try to get votes!”

The Biden administration is getting that kind of pressure more broadly from national immigration activists and progressive members of Congress.

“It is time to undo the United States’ draconian immigration policies, particularly policies introduced under the Trump Administration, such as the use of Title 42, that circumvent our humanitarian obligations,” a group of Democratic lawmakers including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, wrote to the White House in February.

There’s already an immigration surge at the border, with the border patrol apprehending nearly 7,000 people every day. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that could double or even triple if Title 42 is lifted.

Republicans are already using immigration as a political weapon against vulnerable Democrats seeking reelection. And images of tens of thousands of people coming over the border would make TV ads against Democrats harder to endure.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security released a 20-page memo outlining its plans for a surge and also briefed members of Congress and their staff on those plans. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN’s “State of the Union” the administration is prepared to handle that.

“It is our responsibility to be prepared for different scenarios. That is what we are doing,” he said. “There is no question that if, in fact, we reach that number, that is going to be an extraordinary strain on our system. But we are preparing for it.”

Immigration activists privately expect the nation’s courts to keep Title 42 in place for months – likely at least through the November midterm elections. A Louisiana judge has temporarily blocked the administration from lifting the policy and could decide to extend that. Other court battles loom.

But that won’t stop Republicans from attacking vulnerable Democrats in the meantime.

“I spent 25 years in the Navy and at NASA doing some really complicated things. And we have the things we plan for and we expect. And then we also have plans for the unexpected,” Kelly said. “Well, in this case they don’t even have a sufficient plan for what we should expect.”