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Will Immigration Decide the Suozzi-Pilip Special Election?

Migrants who recently arrived from Eagle Pass, Texas, walk to Floyd Bennett Field in the Brooklyn borough of New York on February 3, 2024.
Photo: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2022 in large part by flipping four seats in the New York suburbs by hammering Democrats as soft on crime. This year they’re defending these same districts to keep their slim majority intact, but they are going on the offensive with a new weapon: immigration.

New York is particularly sensitive to immigration as a political issue as the state continues to contend with the arrival of more than 170,000 migrants from the southern border over the past two years — an influx that has stressed the city’s capacity and resources to provide adequate food and shelter to the newcomers. A December Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of registered voters in the city agreed with Mayor Eric Adams’s statement from last year that the migrant crisis will “destroy New York City.” This discontent, especially on top of recent headlines about migrants allegedly committing crimes and chaos at the southern border, has given Republicans what they believe is a winning issue.

The first test of this strategy will come on Tuesday in the special election to replace George Santos in one of the congressional districts Republicans flipped in 2022. Both the Democratic candidate Tom Suozzi and Republican Mazi Pilip have put immigration at the forefront of their campaigns, seeking to prove who’s strongest on the issue of border security. Early in the campaign, the two candidates held dueling press conferences outside a migrant shelter in Queens, in part of the district that stretches into Nassau County, arguing that their side would be the most effective at stopping the flow of migrants into the city.

Attention then turned to Washington, where bipartisan Senate legislation to tighten the border fell apart in the face of Republican opposition. Suozzi, who represented the district in Congress before retiring in 2022, accuses Republicans of tanking the bill they helped negotiate for political gain. Pilip, a two-term county legislator, is echoing her party’s line that the bill doesn’t go far enough, calling it an “absolute nonstarter.” After being dubbed “Sanctuary Suozzi” by his opponent, he defended his immigration record in one ad and promised to secure the border while opening legal paths to citizenship.

Every ad Republicans have aired has been on immigration, according to Politico. In particular, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Johnson’s Congressional Leadership PAC have called Suozzi an “open-border radical” and accused him of “rolling out the red carpet for illegal immigrants,” respectively.

“Democrats have spent years neglecting our borders and now American cities are at a breaking point trying to keep pace with the current influx of illegal migrants. Voters know who is responsible for the illegal-migrant issue and will hold Democrats accountable for it in 2024,” a NRCC spokesperson said in a statement.

The two candidates found rare consensus on last month’s incident where two NYPD officers were allegedly beaten by a group of migrants outside a Manhattan shelter, saying they should be deported.

The result of the special election could have an immediate impact on another Republican goal: impeaching Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over his handling of the border. On Tuesday, Republicans failed to get enough votes from their own party to succeed. They plan to try again, meaning an additional vote from Pilip could make the difference.

Among those voting to impeach Mayorkas were New York freshmen Republican lawmakers Mike Lawler, Anthony D’Esposito, Marc Molinaro, and Brandon Williams, whose districts are considered to be in play this fall. Congressman Pat Ryan, a Democrat who represents the Hudson Valley and is also up for reelection this year, said in an interview that his Republican colleagues’ rejection of the border bill is evidence that the GOP was never truly serious about reaching a compromise.

“At this point, a year plus in, I’m just so tired of hearing about folks who say they’re moderate and say they came here to D.C. to get stuff done. And I’m explicitly talking about my New York Republican neighbors that are on all sides in my district,” he said. “This week was your chance to prove that, and pretty much every single Republican decided they care more about taking photos at the border or fearmongering about immigration rather than doing a single freaking thing to actually secure the border.”

Ryan, who led one of the few successful Democratic congressional campaigns in New York two years ago, thinks that Republicans might struggle to push their message on immigration in some of the more moderate districts up for grabs this fall.

“I think voters are very smart and they see through the acts and they see through the b.s. And more and more, especially on this issue of border security and immigration, it’s very clear that this is at Trump’s direction. It’s at the far-right MAGA playbook’s direction,” he said. “There’s just now such a consistent track record of bad faith.”

Alyssa Cass, a Democratic political strategist, described Republicans’ tumultuous week on Capitol Hill as “31 flavors of Republican chaos.”

“Republican fumbling on the border gives Democrats a unique opportunity to seize the issue,” she said. “I think that if Democrats message aggressively and, sometimes perhaps uncomfortably, they can really seize the advantage on this issue.”




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