Competition to Follow in George Santos’ Footsteps Puts Both Parties’ Immigration Stances to the Test


When Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip came out against the Senate’s bipartisan immigration deal last Monday, former Rep. Tom Suozzi ― the Democrat running against her in Tuesday’s special congressional election on Long Island, New York ― thought he had hit pay dirt.

Finally, he could accuse Pilip, a Nassau County legislator running almost entirely on an end to the chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border, of being weaker on border enforcement than he is.

“We finally have a chance to have a solution, and we’re not going to do it, because President Trump said it will help Biden?” Suozzi said Thursday evening, during the race’s sole televised debate. “As Mitt Romney said: That’s appalling.”

Nassau County Legislator Mazi Pilip, left, has framed her race against former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) as a referendum on President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.

Brittainy Newman & John Minchillo/Associated Press

Pressed by the moderator to lay out her plan to resolve the immigration issue, Pilip fell back on her indictment of the status quo, for which she said Suozzi, who hasn’t been in Congress in two years, bears responsibility.

“They caused this issue,” she said, referring to President Joe Biden, Suozzi, and other Democrats. “Before we even are addressing the issue inside, we have to make sure first and foremost, we need to secure the border. After that day, we have to come up with the plan.”

Pilip’s response was not exactly coherent ― secure the border without a plan? ― but Republicans are betting it may not have to be. Voters in New York and beyond are frustrated with Biden’s management of the border, and polling shows they trust Republicans more than Democrats to fix the problem by wide margins.

In a recent public poll of the race showing Suozzi ahead of Pilip by 4 percentage points ― a lead within the margin of error ― Pilip still had a significant advantage among voters in a question about who would do a better job of “addressing the influx of migrants into the United States.”

“[Suozzi] had years in Congress where he voted 100% of the time with Biden,” said Savannah Viar, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republicans’ campaign arm. “That is what voters know and believe about him.”

Tuesday’s neck-and-neck race ― which was set up by the expulsion of fabulist former GOP Rep. George Santos in December ― will be the first to test whether Democrats’ embrace of hard-line measures, including giving the president the ability to shut down applications for asylum entirely, will help them chip away at the GOP’s advantage.

A win for Suozzi in this Long Island and Queens swing district would suggest that Republicans sabotaging a bipartisan border security bill have handed Democrats a powerful talking point to limit the GOP advantage on immigration in races up to and including the battle for the presidency.

“February 13 is really about November 5 and swing, suburban districts around the country.”

– Larry Levy, National Center for Suburban Studies, Hofstra University

“If he’s successful, maybe there are strategies and tactics and messages there that the Democrats running in Orange County, California, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, or in Oakland County, Michigan, can put into play,” said Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

On the other hand, a victory for Pilip in a district that Biden carried by 8 percentage points in 2020 would suggest that anger over the immigration chaos is such that Democrats’ efforts to seize the high ground on border security are going to be harder than they think.

“February 13 is really about November 5 and swing, suburban districts around the country,” Levy said. “That’s what makes this ‘special’ special.”

Suozzi, a moderate whose campaign slogan is “Let’s Fix This,” came under attack early in the campaign for his allegedly dovish immigration record.

Pilip and her Republican backers have seized, in particular, on an episode in which Suozzi ended Nassau County’s cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency while he was serving as Nassau County executive in 2007.

“He even bragged about getting rid of immigration enforcement,” a TV spot funded by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super political action committee, intones over ominous music.

Former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), who is running to replace expelled Rep. George Santos in Congress, speaks at an event in Plainview, New York, on Sunday. Suozzi has pointed to his record of bipartisan compromise as evidence of how he'd address immigration.
Former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), who is running to replace expelled Rep. George Santos in Congress, speaks at an event in Plainview, New York, on Sunday. Suozzi has pointed to his record of bipartisan compromise as evidence of how he’d address immigration.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Suozzi has clarified repeatedly that he ended cooperation with ICE at the request of Lawrence Mulvey, Nassau County’s police commissioner at the time. Contemporary news reports confirm that Mulvey took issue with an ICE raid in 2007, in which he said that the civil liberties of local Latino residents were violated, and guns were even drawn on Nassau County police officers.

“You’re pro-law enforcement ― would you say to your police commissioner, ‘Oh, I don’t want to listen to you, police commissioner. It’s OK that they’re breaking the rules and ruining our attempts to try and do community policing’?” Suozzi demanded of Pilip during the debate.

In TV advertising, Suozzi has highlighted more recent efforts to support tough border enforcement. One spot features him shaking hands with a Customs and Border Patrol agent and defending ICE on Fox News in 2018.

And an ad funded by House Majority PAC, House Democrats’ main super PAC, notes that Suozzi co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill with then-Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a popular Long Island politician currently backing Pilip.

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