As they plot a post-midterms legislative agenda for President Joe Biden, White House officials have been considering whether changes to the country's immigration system should be one of his major policy pushes, according to White House officials and other people familiar with the discussions.
The talks are happening within a small group of Biden aides, and the president hasn't yet made any decisions, the sources said. The policy details of any immigration push, as well as its scale and scope, would depend on the makeup of Congress and the political climate, the people familiar with the discussions said.
Such a push reflects an acknowledgment among Biden's advisers that as he prepares for a re-election campaign based on the slogan "Promises Kept," immigration remains a 2020 campaign pledge that remains largely unfulfilled.
Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to wield the issue against Democrats ahead of November's elections by pointing to record numbers of illegal border crossings, throwing Biden and his fellow Democrats on the defensive even as they counter that they're the ones striving for a bipartisan solution.
"The challenge is that Republicans have a stranglehold on making any progress," said Cecilia Munoz, who was the director of the Domestic Policy Council in Barack Obama's White House.
Biden sent Congress a comprehensive bill to overhaul the immigration system on his first day in office. But he has expended no political capital to move it forward in the nearly two years since, while Democrats controlled the House and the Senate.
Now, however, some Biden officials believe elevating immigration to a high-profile priority could benefit the president regardless of the outcome in the midterms: Either he makes bipartisan progress in revamping the immigration system, or he casts the GOP as nativists determined to block migration to the U.S.
"There's the desire to do immigration," a person familiar with the discussions said. "Then there's reality.
"He got most of what he campaigned on done in two years," this person said of the president. "Immigration is really the only big thing that's still sitting out there."
A new NBC News/Telemundo poll shows Latino voters are nearly split on Biden, with 51% approving of the job he's doing and 45% disapproving. And Republicans continue to cut into Democrats' advantage with that constituency overall, according to the poll.
Latino voters prefer Republicans over Democrats when it comes to crime, the economy and border security, the survey shows. But they also believe Democrats would do a better job than Republicans on immigration more broadly, along with health care, abortion and addressing the concerns of their community.
The White House discussions also reflect some Biden advisers' view that he can turn the tables on attacks from the GOP, which has used immigration against Democrats in the midterm elections with some success.
The Republican governors of Florida and Texas have kept the border security issue in the headlines by relocating migrants to Democratic enclaves.
Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have recently sent migrants to places like tony Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, or Vice President Kamala Harris' residence in Washington, D.C. - moves the White House derides as political stunts that do nothing to solve one of the most intractable challenges the nation faces.
The White House has offered only a muted response in recent weeks as border crossings from Mexico to the U.S. have reached nearly 8,000 per day, according to data obtained by NBC News.
"I think the administration is sometimes unsure how to articulate an answer to a complex problem when it is juxtaposed against a bumper sticker or a callous trick," said Angela Kelley, who until earlier this year was a senior counselor at the Department of Homeland Security.
The White House has also come under growing pressure from immigration advocates who want the president to make a forceful push on the issue and don't believe he has done enough.
"It's not enough to say, 'Look what they [Republicans] will do to you,'" said Gabriela Domenzain, who was the spokesperson on immigration issues for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. "You have to say, 'This is what I'll do,' and then defend it and speak about it. But it's not happening."
Biden has stressed in public appearances what Democrats could achieve if they added just two seats to their Senate majority, currently a 50-50 split with Harris as the tiebreaker.
He has repeatedly cited abortion rights, for instance, but only recently has he raised immigration, both times at events marking Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15.
The White House publicly expresses confidence about Democrats' chances in the midterms, and strategy sessions are underway in the West Wing to game out multiple paths for Biden based on various results.
Biden aides see the potential for further progress on his economic agenda, an effort to ban assault weapons and codifying abortion and privacy rights if Democrats retain narrow majorities in the House and the Senate, for instance, or even expand their Senate majority.
But officials are bracing for the likeliest outcome: Republicans take control of at least the House, if not both chambers. They have been fortifying the White House counsel's office and communications staff to prepare for an expected onslaught of GOP-led investigations of the administration's response to Covid to the business dealings and personal activities of Hunter Biden, the president's son.
Republicans plan to closely question Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who oversees immigration, in the event they gain control of the House, congressional aides said. Armed with subpoena power, a GOP-controlled House would hold hearings examining the Biden administration's border control policies and its handling of immigration, the aides said.
Any policy push from Biden is likely to include more than legislative proposals, immigration included. The White House already is considering executive actions to address some aspects of immigration policy in the absence of congressional movement, specifically to try to protect the status of many DACA "Dreamers" - immigrants who were brought to the U.S. when they were children but lack legal status and were granted protections under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (A decision on the program's future is expected soon from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)
Executive actions on immigration can go only so far, however, and they inevitably face court challenges.
"I know there is advocacy pressure on the White House to do something," Munoz said. "What's available for them to do is extremely limited. Executive actions that the president has taken have been challenged in the courts. And the results have not been good in the courts."
The thinking around immigration, however, represents the way Biden's potential 2024 presidential campaign aligns more closely with a legislative strategy.
A source involved with the discussions said the president is expected to announced his political future ahead of his State of the Union address early next year. Such a move would in effect set up his address to Congress as a nationally televised campaign kickoff.
A more concerted push for immigration legislation would both allow Biden to say he's working harder to fulfill a major campaign promise and potentially put the GOP in a difficult spot. Republicans face conflicting demands from two key constituencies: the business community, which wants to expand the labor force with additional legal migration, and a powerful GOP base that, led by former President Donald Trump, is demanding tougher border enforcement.
A White House official said that if Republicans capture only a narrow House majority, the potential future speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, would be under pressure from more moderate members to make progress, potentially opening the door to at least modest changes.
That might be wishful thinking, according to veterans of past immigration reform efforts. Republican lawmakers have concluded they can mobilize their voters by showcasing flaws in the system, as opposed to working with Democratic counterparts to find a compromise, they contend.
"Immigration reform has always been a bipartisan issue, and it wasn't until Trump that Republicans walked away and became a party of no immigration," said Tyler Moran, a former Biden White House adviser on migration issues. "Now, immigration is solely used as a political wedge issue and a base motivator. Ultimately, the challenges that we're facing at the border and with our immigration system can only be solved through legislation."
Republicans take issue with that notion, while some GOP lawmakers have publicly signaled a willingness to try to advance immigration legislation. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas wrote an op-ed last week promoting a bill he has introduced with Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to help improve the efficiency of border screening and processing, which could be the starting point for legislation in the new Congress.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been quietly discussing immigration issues this year and could be open to a push on the issue by Biden, should he make one, although the talks have been modest in scope.
Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have held talks about expanding visas for immigrants working in agriculture, construction and certain other crucial industries, said a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks.
Congress could take up a bill that would greenlight more visas for immigrant workers in the lame duck session after the midterm elections, this lawmaker said. Republicans might go along because the visas wouldn't offer a path to citizenship, meaning the new immigrant laborers "can't vote against these guys in 10 years," the lawmaker added.
Sinema said in a recent speech on bipartisanship: "We've been stymied by political edges on both ends of the spectrum - one party that demands only border walls and security and another party that wants amnesty for millions of people. The reality is that we have to address both our security needs and our workforce needs."
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com