A runoff election in heavily Hispanic South Texas is revealing the party’s divisions on border issues.

ust a month after President Biden took office, pledging to roll back Trump-era policies in an attempt to take a more humane approach to immigration, Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas, began to sound an alarm.

He warned that the number of migrants seeking to enter the country would rise, and soon released photos of children sleeping under tinfoil blankets at a crowded migrant processing facility in his district at the edge of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now Mr. Cuellar, 66, has become one of the administration’s most consistent critics on immigration, appearing on Fox News and at times echoing Republicans, saying immigrants are pouring into the United States because they believe “that the border is open.”

His criticism has been met with fierce resistance from Jessica Cisneros, 28, a progressive immigration lawyer who is trying to unseat him in a Democratic runoff on Tuesday.

Like other Democratic primary contests, their race is a proxy battle for the broader direction of a party that is being tugged between moderate and progressive wings. But in particular, it encapsulates the acute tensions within the party on immigration.

In interviews with Democratic leaders and voters in Texas’ 28th Congressional District, which stretches from Laredo to San Antonio, many expressed a deep frustration with both national Democrats and Republicans who use the border as a political backdrop but have failed to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, combat the drug trade or improve legal pathways to citizenship.

And many worried that Democrats lack a forceful and coherent message when facing Republicans who have appeared increasingly intent on portraying a migrant “invasion,” making it a marquee issue of the midterm elections.

Mr. Cuellar is often at the center of the debate. His supporters say he is simply trying to balance competing Democratic factions on the issue, as the G.O.P. has largely abandoned policy-centered debate in favor of anti-immigrant appeals. But he is criticized just as much by Democrats concerned he sounds too much like a Republican, focused on enforcement rather than a humanitarian approach.


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