Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) speaks to the Lakeville Estates Civic...

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) speaks to the Lakeville Estates Civic Association of New Hyde Park during a town hall meeting in January.  Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Suozzi’s victory in the 3rd Congressional District special election last month has inspired a shift in the approach that Democrats and pro-immigration groups are taking on one of the hottest issues in this year’s national election — the migrant influx at the U.S. southern border.

The veteran Democrat from Glen Cove took on the complicated issue of immigration as he campaigned amid record-setting migrant border crossings that arose after President Joe Biden reversed former President Donald Trump’s border restrictions.

Suozzi responded to Republican candidate Mazi Melesa Pilip's attacks based on the influx of migrants by admitting problems at the U.S. southern border and promoting bipartisan border legislation he had co-sponsored with then-Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). Suozzi also embraced the Senate's bipartisan bill endorsed by the Border Patrol Union. 

“President Biden should do what President Clinton did — which is take the issue they're attacking you on, make it your own, and pursue a bipartisan, moderate objective,” Suozzi said, citing the Senate border deal negotiated by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.). 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Rep. Tom Suozzi’s victory in the 3rd Congressional District special election has spurred a shift in the approach by Democrats and pro-immigration groups to the migrant influx at the U.S. southern border.
  • Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, said polling shows voters take to the message that Democrats believe the broken border needs to be fixed and are willing to compromise on some issues in order to restore order. 
  • Groups seeking restrictions on immigration and Republicans dismissed the new messaging as a political ploy and said they would not cede the issue.

“And if the Republicans go along with it, then we all move forward as a country,” he said. “If they don’t go along with it, then you say, ‘Hey, are you just weaponizing this issue for political purposes?’”

Poll after poll has found that immigration and the border crisis have become the top issues in this year’s presidential campaign as well as in many congressional races.

A Gallup Poll released on Feb. 27, for instance, found that immigration topped the list of national problems for the first time in five years of its polling and jumped 8 percentage points from January to February, eclipsing inflation and the economy.

Democrats and their allies have seized on the Suozzi approach as a winning strategy. But groups seeking restrictions on immigration and Republicans have dismissed it as a political ploy.

Testing the strategy

Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, has called attention to Suozzi’s approach and promoted political messaging based on the Senate bipartisan deal the group says will help Democrats defuse the immigration issue.

Based on polling in the 55 battleground House districts, Third Way identified what it said was the most successful message: Democrats say the broken border needs to be fixed and are willing to compromise on some issues in order to restore order and help local communities with incoming migrants.

At first, voters surveyed said Republicans have the better approach, said Lanae Erickson, who focuses on social policy and politics at Third Way. “Democrats start pretty bad on immigration — 15 points down” in the poll, she said.

After presenting voters in the survey with the Democrats' new messaging, Erickson said, “we get to parity on the issue, that 15 point advantage is completely erased, and we're essentially even on immigration.”

In the week since that presentation, several immigration advocacy groups have endorsed Suozzi’s — and Third Way’s — approach.

“Tom Suozzi ran on the message of, ‘Yes, we need to fix our border, but we also need to ensure that we’re fixing our entire immigration system.’ And he leaned into it instead of dodging it, which was the right thing to do,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the nonprofit New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group for New York advocacy organizations.

On Monday, the nonprofit group America’s Voice, which advocates for a path to citizenship for immigrants in the United States without papers, praised Suozzi’s campaign and called for a “both/and” approach that addresses public concern over an orderly border and embraces a broader set of solutions for legal immigration.

Competing messages

Republicans and groups that seek to limit immigration said they would not cede the issue of immigration and doubted Democrats would succeed.

“I don't think Suozzi won on immigration or border security,” said Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-Island Park), whose district is next to Suozzi’s.

D'Esposito dismissed the bipartisan bill on border issues that failed to pass in the Senate. “And it's not a border security bill — what it does is codifies the disasters that are already in place right now,” D’Esposito said.

Suozzi, though, said his approach would win over voters and advised Biden to address the border and immigration in his State of the Union address Thursday.

“The president should lean into that immigration issue,” Suozzi told reporters last week. “He should say, ‘OK, we have a bipartisan deal on the table. It’s been negotiated by very reasonable people. Why are you not going forward with that?’”

That's exactly what Biden did in his address to Congress and the nation.

He highlighted the Senate border deal he negotiated with a Republican, Democrat and Independent, and when Republicans shouted no, Biden pushed back and blamed Trump for pressuring congressional Republicans to block the bill so he could run on the border issue. 

Calling the bill “the toughest set of border security reforms we've ever seen,” Biden told Republicans in the chamber: “Get this bill done. We need to act now.”

And, echoing one of Suozzi's slogans, Biden said: “We can fight about fixing the border or we can fix it. I'm ready to fix it. Send me the border bill now.” 

Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland. The conversation continues on newsday.com/nextli where we invite Long Islanders to share their experiences on this looming crisis of changing weather patterns, flooding, shoreline protection, home buyouts and more to find potential solutions for the region’s future.

Paying the Price: Long Island's stormy future Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland.

Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland. The conversation continues on newsday.com/nextli where we invite Long Islanders to share their experiences on this looming crisis of changing weather patterns, flooding, shoreline protection, home buyouts and more to find potential solutions for the region’s future.

Paying the Price: Long Island's stormy future Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland.

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