It’s usually Republicans making pilgrimages to the border wall to register displeasure with President Biden’s immigration policy, but Sen. Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire Democrat, made the trip this month, recording a video in front of the fence and igniting a firestorm within her party.
Ms. Hassan, who is running for reelection this year, said Border Patrol agents told her they needed three things: more people, more technology and, most controversially, restarting wall construction. As she described it, filling “certain gaps in physical barriers along the border.”
It was a significant breach of party orthodoxy, but Ms. Hassan is far from alone.
At least a half-dozen Democratic senators up for reelection this year have blasted Mr. Biden’s decision to end Title 42, the pandemic border emergency policy that allows the government to immediately expel some illegal immigrants because of COVID-19 risks.
Those Democrats say the president’s team has no plan to deal with the half-million migrants that the Homeland Security Department says could rush the border once Title 42 officially ends next month.
“They’re worried, and they realize this Title 42 was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican who made a trip to the border this month and confirmed the sense that illegal border crossings will get even worse when the policy ends.
While the border has cleaved deep divisions within the Democratic Party, it has helped unite fractious Republicans in their criticism of Mr. Biden.
More than two dozen Republican governors, including conservative Greg Abbott in Texas and more moderate Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and Larry Hogan in Maryland, have linked arms to form the American Governors Border Strike Force.
They have vowed to share intelligence on criminal issues arising from the border, where illegal immigrants and deadly synthetic drugs are pouring into the U.S. at an unprecedented pace.
Mr. Abbott’s Democratic opponent in this year’s election, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, has been blasting the governor for his handling of the border. Earlier this month, though, Mr. O’Rourke surprised his supporters by siding against Mr. Biden on Title 42.
He suggested that the White House should keep the policy in place until it has a plan to deal with the surge of migrants expected to take advantage of Mr. Biden’s leniency.
Mr. O’Rourke has since tried to clarify his comments, but The Texas Tribune reported that his supporters were “confused and confounded.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Democrats should have expected the problems.
“The harder left among Democrats thought they had the upper hand on immigration. They were given a long leash, and the Biden administration undid everything Trump did, and the predictable consequences are now facing people who have to win reelection,” he said.
Mr. Krikorian said the looming migrant surge at the end of Title 42 — which Homeland Security says could mean as many as 500,000 migrants rushing the border each month, more than double any previous record — could lead to an “extinction-level” election for Democrats in November.
Seeking to create distance from Mr. Biden, Ms. Hassan has joined fellow Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana in signing on to a Republican bill that would delay the end of Title 42.
Mr. Kelly is also up for reelection this year, as are Sens. Rafael G. Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who have also been critical of the president’s handling of Title 42.
Even Sen. Gary C. Peters of Michigan, who serves as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has expressed worry about the end of Title 42.
Immigrant rights advocates are rushing to stiffen Democrats’ spines.
Juana Esquivel, digital director at the advocacy group America’s Voice, said Democrats were caving to Republican “sound bites such as ‘open borders’ and conspiracies like ‘replacement theory.’”
Activists say the Title 42 policy has blocked some legitimate asylum seekers from making claims at the border, forcing them back across the line to Mexico, where some face kidnapping or other abuse.
“Regardless of what Republicans and senators like Hassan and Warnock say, ending Title 42 is the right thing to do,” Ms. Esquivel said in an email to supporters.
Title 42 was activated in the Trump years, when the pandemic hit. That is also a problem for many advocates who wanted Mr. Biden to wipe away the entire immigration infrastructure created by President Trump.
Indeed, that was why Ms. Hassan’s call for more border wall construction was particularly striking, given the project’s ties to Mr. Trump.
“It was a slap in the face for us Latino immigrants,” said Eva Castillo, director of the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees. “She could have talked about anything other than the stupid wall.
“You know what it is? We’re in New Hampshire. We’re not a border state,” Ms. Castillo said. “That’s not an issue for a New Hampshire incumbent senator to be running on. I’m sick and tired of people playing politics with immigration, on both sides. And it’s especially annoying when it’s the Democrats that are supposed to be friendlier to immigrants.”
The wall has a long history of dividing Democrats from some of their base voters.
When then-Sen. Barack Obama voted for the Secure Fence Act, a 2006 bill to construct 700 miles of fencing during the Bush administration, he got a scolding from Hispanic activists back home in Illinois.
The wall has become even more politicized after Mr. Trump made it the most visible of his 2016 campaign promises.
Ms. Hassan’s campaign didn’t respond to an inquiry from The Washington Times.
Ms. Castillo said she can’t see the senator’s move winning over any Republicans in New Hampshire. But she also can’t see Democrats defecting to vote for a Republican over the senator’s support for a wall. The bigger danger, she said, is a demoralized party that doesn’t turn out in the numbers needed in November.
Indeed, the comments by other Twitter users on Ms. Hassan’s video suggested neither side of the ideological divide was pleased.
“Well, that’s disappointing you went the Ted Cruz route,” said one. Another called it a “gross level of pandering to the White supremacists.”
“And this is why it’s hard to support you. … We need open borders, not ones that discriminate against Brown and Black people,” said one.
Another poster wondered why Ms. Hassan hadn’t gone to the border earlier and then answered the question: “Oh yeah, election year, my bad.”