Mark Kelly is a reliable ally of President Joe Biden. Except when it comes to the border.
The Arizona Democratic senator sounded a rare note of criticism after Biden’s Wednesday night address to Congress, asking the president for more federal resources at the border and calling the influx of migrants coming into his state a “crisis” — language that Biden’s White House is resisting. In his characteristically low-key way, Kelly didn’t back down Thursday from his knock on Biden for omitting a detailed plan for the border and his vow to “continue holding this administration accountable.”
Though Kelly’s home state shifted toward Democrats during the presidency of Donald Trump, the GOP is using Biden’s handling of the border in an effort to hobble the former astronaut’s reelection campaign next year. Gearing up to try to take back a Senate seat in Kelly’s once reliably red state, Republicans are already criticizing him for not being a more aggressive check on Biden. But the Arizonan says that’s exactly what he’s doing.
“This continues to be a major problem that shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of Arizona communities. And I think it was important to highlight that it wasn’t part of the address last night,” Kelly said in an interview. “We’ve got to address this and it can’t be on Arizona taxpayers and Arizona towns that are really struggling right now. It’s a federal government problem.”
Biden did mention immigration reform on Wednesday, saying that the government needs to address why people are fleeing Central America’s Northern Triangle for the United States. The president pitched his immigration agenda as vital to securing the southern border through new spending on security technology for border states like Arizona. But Kelly said Biden did “not specifically” touch on “what I would say is a crisis on the border in Arizona and Texas.”
Kelly said he has been in regular consultation with both Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, adding that he’s asked the White House to send more resources to tackle rising migration. He acknowledged that Biden had a long list of issues to discuss in a limited amount of time, “but I thought [the border] was an important issue to be addressed.”
Kelly’s colleague, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), has teamed with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on immigration, first asking Biden to address the migration uptick in a letter and then introducing bipartisan border legislation. She and Kelly have also spoken with key Biden administration officials together.
On Thursday, she backed him up in a statement through a spokesperson that harmonized with Kelly’s critiques of Biden’s border strategy.
“Sen. Sinema has been clear that she — along with Sen. Kelly — wants to see more action from the administration to address the border crisis and support Arizona border communities,” the spokesperson said.
Mayorkas has warned that this year could mark a two-decade crest in southern border crossings by undocumented immigrants, but there are some signs the numbers are leveling off, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics. There are far fewer children in CBP care and apprehensions are down from their peak, although the number of migrant kids under Health and Human Services care remains high.
And the issue remains politically salient. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has put Kelly high on its list of vulnerable Democrats in the midterms, has criticized him as sitting “idly by” while Sinema works on the issue. The GOP campaign arm also has dinged him for his votes on non-binding budget amendments related to border security and immigration.
Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for the NRSC, said if Kelly was concerned about border security, he should have spoken up when Biden canceled Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the border.
Kelly’s budget votes “are going to hang around his neck all cycle. Voted against more money for the border. Voted to allow sanctuary cities. Voted to send stimulus checks to illegal immigrants,” Hartline said. “He helped create this crisis.”
The first-term senator has made sure his state knows that he’s focused on the border, however. Kelly has held a private discussion on border security with Gov. Doug Ducey, whom many Republicans want to run against him. The Democrat has also visited the border twice and just this week held a call with border community sheriffs.
In an interview last week, Sinema said she was confident her state would recognize Kelly’s efforts come election time. She also said she would support his campaign in “any way he would find most useful.”
“He’s doing the work that matters to folks at home in Arizona,” she said. “And there will be a time soon where he begins to tell them about all this.”