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Migrant crisis looms over governors’ gathering at the White House

By Priscilla Alvarez, Camila DeChalus and Alison Main, CNN

(CNN) — The record level of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border loomed over a gathering of governors at the White House this weekend, revealing how the issue has become prominent in states nationwide and across the political spectrum.

The National Governors Association holds a gathering of governors at the White House annually to discuss matters affecting their states and other kitchen-table issues. For years, immigration has been on the backburner.

But that was not the case this year.

Several governors CNN spoke with over the weekend said immigration was the primary focus of their discussions.

“This is the No. 1 issue on Americans’ minds right now,” Montana Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte said.

“Everybody realizes that this is a significant problem right now and a challenge,” North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper told CNN.

Governors nationwide, regardless of their proximity to the US southern border, have been grappling with migrant arrivals, in part as a result of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott busing migrants to Democratic-led cities unannounced. President Joe Biden acknowledged their challenges in his remarks before governors Friday.

“You deal with this every day; some of you deal with it every single day. You have real skin in the game,” Biden said, urging governors to ramp up the pressure on lawmakers to pass what he described as the “strongest border deal the country has ever seen.”

Several governors told CNN that they spoke with the president about potential solutions to addressing the challenges related to border security.

“I think what you saw in that room [at the White House] was both Democrats and Republicans that want a solution and that don’t think that Congress can simply sit on the sidelines,” said Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, describing the discussions as “civil.”

As the White House navigates Republican criticism and Democratic outcry — some who want to see stricter measures and others wary of that approach — Biden has sought to embrace stricter border security measures.

The president is considering sweeping executive action that would restrict migrants’ ability to seek asylum at the US-Mexico border if they crossed illegally — a maneuver reminiscent of controversial action from the Trump era. White House officials maintain no final decision has been made.

Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Friday that Biden told governors that he is working with lawyers to understand what executive action he could take on immigration, but that the president appeared “frustrated” that he “was not getting answers from attorneys that felt he could take the kind of actions that he wanted to.”

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota underscored the need for additional resources along the US southern border, arguing: “I think there’s a ton of things that can be done right now, without legislation.”

The president’s mulling over taking executive action comes after Senate Republicans blocked a bipartisan border deal earlier this month that included sweeping measures, including an authority to shut down the US-Mexico border.

“I think that … at least for now, this legislation is on life support. I think that the president is going to look at what we can do,” Cooper said, referring to the Senate border bill. “Some actions that potentially he might take, obviously they would be litigated as to whether they would be able to work or not.”

The White House has slammed Republicans for not taking up the measure tied to a foreign aid package. And on Friday, each of the tables where governors were seated had a fact sheet with details of the border deal.

The handling of the US-Mexico border has been a political liability for Biden, whose team has grappled with rising migration across the Western Hemisphere, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The failed border bill, though, “handed the president” a political opportunity, said New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

“It’s quite clear no matter what you think about the immigration policy, we know now who to blame for the lack of action, which is awful for America, but it’s frankly a gift for the president,” he said.

Abbott’s escalating border tactics have brought the migrant crisis to the doorsteps of Democratic-led cities and states, placing the issue at the forefront of a heated election cycle and forcing Democrats to answer to it.

“All this bickering between both parties needs to stop. I ask our leaders to stop politicizing this immigration issue and come to the table to find solutions to address this immigration issue,” Mayor Ramiro Garza of the border city of Edinburg, Texas, said in a statement.

Garza and other mayors from across the country met with Biden last month at the White House to discuss the influx of migrants arriving in their cities. For months, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called on Biden to provide more resources to help them address these challenges.

Migrants often move to cities within the United States if they’re eligible to be released from government custody and as they go through their immigration proceedings. But Abbott sent thousands of migrants to select cities without a heads-up, leaving officials scrambling to respond.

Democratic strategists have acknowledged the political effect of Abbott’s moves.

“The fear of Abbott’s stunts working to scare people was there from the beginning, and there’s a lot of people running around right now scared that it’s working,” one Democratic strategist told CNN.

“He played into the idea of pitting immigrants against the American people in general and against immigrants who have been here for years,” the strategist added.

CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.

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