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WASHINGTON — Progressive lawmakers and immigration advocates are pushing back against Democrats who say the lesson from their recent special election victory in a bellwether New York district is to actively champion stricter migration and border laws.

“I don’t think that’s the lesson at all,” Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, the progressive caucus whip, said in an interview one day after Rep.-elect Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., won a competitive election Tuesday.

“Long term for the Democratic Party, we have to get back with the American people on the idea that immigration is a good thing,” Casar said. “Regardless of any short-term win in any given district, if we don’t get back to touting that immigration is good … we will always be on the back foot and on the defensive on the issue. Because if our pitches were Republican Light and [theirs] were Republican on immigration, I don’t think we’ll ever win that fight in the middle or the long term.”

Suozzi won a district that the GOP carried by 8 points in 2022 after he went on offense over border security, arguing that Democrats want to tighten asylum laws while the GOP, including his opponent Mazi Pilip, are simply playing political games with it.

In a memo hours later, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Democrats should “go on offense” as Suozzi did on the bipartisan deal Murphy struck and Republicans rejected, saying it was “filled with tough, conservative policy, including an ability for the President to shut down parts of the border to asylum claims when the system is overwhelmed.” The White House said the voters delivered a “devastating repudiation of congressional Republicans” for killing the “toughest, fairest border security legislation in decades.”

Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the progressive advocacy group Indivisible, said Murphy and other Democrats were learning the wrong lesson from Suozzi’s victory.

“All the hot takes hanging the entirety of Suozzi’s win on ‘immigration’ are conflating two different dynamics. Suozzi didn’t win because he edged rightward on immigration,” Levin said. “To the degree that his focus on immigration helped, it was because it highlighted Republican chaos, political theater and their complete lack of interest in serious governing — all with a crisp receipt in their choice to tank their own border bill.”

Levin said Suozzi’s win was also attributable to issues like abortion and threats to democracy, as well as voter distrust in the GOP’s ability to govern, which he said the border showdown proved.

In his campaign, Suozzi endorsed tougher border and asylum laws in the bipartisan Senate deal inked by Murphy and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., with the support of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He took a two-tiered approach on immigration that resembles language former President Barack Obama used in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns — emphasizing enforcement and border security first and championing new legal pathways for migrants to enter the U.S. and become Americans.

“The lesson from Souzzi’s election is that he successfully combined messages about border security with a path to citizenship. He took a balanced approach that appeals to most voters,” said Kerri Talbot, the executive director of the advocacy group Immigration Hub.

‘Invasion’

During the 2016 election, as then-candidate Donald Trump focused his campaign on immigration, Democrats began leaning leftward in their immigration message, emphasizing a humane approach and pathways to citizenship while de-emphasizing strict enforcement. Biden continued that approach in 2020. Now, Democrats are adjusting their message again, to the chagrin of some progressives and immigration activists who favor the more inclusive rhetoric.

In the run-up to the New York contest, Pilip called the migrant influx at the U.S. border an “invasion,” echoing language used by Trump. Suozzi said he doesn’t take issue with it.

“I don’t take issue with the language or description,” Suozzi told reporters a week before the election. “It’s a very serious problem of people crossing our border in a chaotic, unvetted fashion.”

While they held their fire during the contest, some Democrats were upset with Suozzi for his comment.

“I disagree with him on that — on the use of that language,” progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said.

Bowman added that while “every district is different” and that members need to communicate with their voters differently, he doesn’t condone that term to describe migrants seeking asylum.

“I would never use that word,” Bowman said.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, also took issue with that language.

“I absolutely do not agree with embracing dangerous rhetoric that has terrible consequences,” she said in an interview. “I know Tom Suozzi. He is a great guy. He’s got solid Democratic values. I’m looking forward to having a conversation with him about this.”

Escobar, who represents a blue El Paso-based district, said the lesson from New York is not that Democrats win by showing their toughness on migrants. She said the takeaway is that Democrats win by proving they want to “solve big challenges” in a serious way.

“I think we can secure the border in a way that does not abandon our values,” Escobar said.

Still, Suozzi’s victory in the bellwether district — which was won by Biden in 2020 and flipped to Republicans in 2022, covering a small slice of Queens and a big slice of Long Island — has prompted most Democrats to see the glass as half full.

“There’s been this civil war, if you will, within the party. And you have progressives versus moderates and more conservative members,” Bowman said. “Moreso moderates coming after us, I would say. But I think last night’s victory is all about unity.”



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