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In special Long Island House race to replace George Santos, immigration dominates

NEW YORK — In eastern Queens and suburban Long Island, a test of the potency of immigration as a political tool is playing out in a special congressional race that may offer lessons for both parties in the nationwide November general election.

Any takeaways may be limited to the particulars of a unique race: a battle between a savvy and well-known centrist Democrat and a novice Republican nominee who has been evasive on the issues but has increasingly embraced Donald Trump. The shadow of George Santos, the unpopular truth-indifferent Republican who previously held the seat, hangs over the race, too.

But with both Democrats and Republicans starved for insight into what issues might tilt this year’s congressional races and the potential fall showdown between President Biden and Trump, the special election offers a salivating data point. The fate of the House may run through swing districts in New York in November.

The Democratic candidate, former Rep. Tom Suozzi, has acknowledged that immigration is a particularly pressing issue to voters in the district, New York’s 3rd, which covers a middle-class sliver of eastern Queens and tumbles east into swaths of Long Island’s tony north shore.

New York City’s cavernous, tent-style migrant shelter at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village sits within the House district. The 1,000-bed complex, which opened in August in response to the city’s migrant crisis, remains at full capacity and has invited withering criticism from neighbors.

The Republican nominee, the Ethiopian-born Mazi Melesa Pilip, has used the immigration issue to hammer Suozzi, painting Democrats as weak on the border and soft in their so-called sanctuary city policies. She has tried to tie Suozzi to Democratic leadership during the ballooning crisis, branding it the “Tom Suozzi/Joe Biden” border crisis.

“The migrant issue is a very big issue,” Suozzi said Wednesday. “It’s not only a border crisis at the southern border, it’s a Washington, D.C., crisis. We have to address this issue.”

Republicans are hoping it proves to be a Democratic issue. New York Democrats spent months last year pointing fingers at Washington lawmakers and each other for not solving it. The GOP is now seeking to take advantage, warning of a violent migrant crime wave.

In Pilip’s campaign ads, the migrant crisis is described as a “record invasion” that is driving “violence right here” in New York. The NYPD has highlighted recent crimes allegedly committed by migrants, though research has indicated immigrants are historically linked to significantly less criminal behavior than native-born Americans.

Members of both parties are also concerned about the high costs of the city’s migrant crisis to taxpayers, which could run to more than $10 billion by 2025, according to government estimates. The issue shows no signs of abating; more than 1,500 asylum seekers entered New York City last week, Mayor Adams’ office said.

And early voting is underway in Long Island.

“It’s pretty clear that from the Republican side, the immigration issue is dominating,” said Steven Cohen, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University.

Cohen expressed surprise that Suozzi has not pivoted the conversation to other topics, but added, “He’s just got to respond to these attacks that keep coming up.”

On Wednesday, Suozzi and three current Democratic House members joined reporters for a video call in which he chastised the Republican Party for opposing a bipartisan border deal in Congress that would provide military funding for Israel. “This is about life and death,” Suozzi said, referring to the war in Israel.

He soon found himself answering questions about immigration prompted by Pilip’s campaign.

Earlier in the day, Pilip continued her migrant-focused fire, convening a news conference at the Creedmoor migrant shelter to accept the endorsement of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing border patrol officers across the U.S. The 15,000-strong union supported Trump in 2016 and 2020, but endorses sparingly in House races.

“This district is very important to border security,” the union’s president, Brandon Judd, said in an interview. “When you have the opportunity to endorse somebody as intelligent and capable as Mazi in a district that is being destroyed by illegal immigration, I think it’s a no-brainer.”

Suozzi said the endorsement was incoherent because the union supported the bipartisan border deal, and because the deal would benefit the union workers. But Suozzi said he was not surprised that the union would back the Republican, noting that its leader is closely aligned with Trump.

“It’s obviously a political deal with the Trumpers and the right wing, despite the best interests of the border patrol union members,” Suozzi vented to reporters. “It doesn’t make any sense — it’s completely illogical.”

Overall, 58% of U.S. voters supported the border package and 22% opposed it in a late January poll commissioned by Blueprint, a Democratic research initiative. The national poll found most rank-and-file Republicans supporting the deal, according to the survey, which was conducted by YouGov, a respected pollster.

But Trump, who holds an iron grip over his party as he mounts another run for president, has opposed the border compromise, saying it would the leave the border too open. Democrats say Trump is playing politics, aiming to extend the migrant crisis so his party benefits at the polls. (Nikki Haley, Trump’s moderate rival in the Republican presidential race, has echoed the Democrats’ argument.)

Ridiculing New York Republicans for not backing the deal, Gov. Hochul, a Democrat, suggested the GOP’s line on the deal could hurt Pilip.

“They ought to give her something to run on, which is to say: I’m standing up in support of a common-sense, bipartisan compromise,” Hochul told reporters in Albany.

Suozzi, who left Congress for a doomed run for governor, finished his third term representing Long Island two years ago. The GOP has dredged up his old positions, including a 2017 vote against a bill aimed at defunding sanctuary cities, to present him as soft on the border.

Judd said he based his union’s endorsement on Suozzi’s entire track record, not just the recent fight over the border package.

“Suozzi has been absolutely horrendous on this issue,” Judd said. “When you look at the amount of money illegal immigration is costing New York, it makes plenty of sense to endorse someone who is going to try to do something. Suozzi hasn’t done anything.”

It is unclear if that argument will resonate with enough voters to swing the election into Pilip’s column, and it is also unclear if the GOP’s decision to quash the border deal will backfire on Pilip. Public polling of the race has been almost nonexistent ahead of Election Day next Tuesday.

But one feature of the race has become clear.

“Immigration is a huge issue on Long Island,” said Douglas Muzzio, a retired professor of public affairs at Baruch College, adding that it could significantly boost Pilip’s odds of victory.

“This is a crucial race,” he added. “It’s going to indicate where Long Island goes. And where Long Island goes is where the House of Representatives goes.”