In recent weeks the Biden Administration and Congressional Republicans have been working towards a deal on immigration following calls for substantive changes to US border policies in response to increasing numbers of migrants arriving at the southern US border with Mexico. Álvaro Corral writes that President Biden has been on the receiving end of public backlash over immigration in an election year. Public opinion in the US has hardened against immigration, he says, with more than 40 percent wanting to see levels fall, a trend which former President Trump has been happy to capitalize on with his inflammatory rhetoric about migrants and immigration on the presidential primary campaign trail.
US immigration and border enforcement policies are notoriously difficult issues for both parties mostly because the US public regularly reports mixed feelings about immigration and these feelings are often very volatile. Just four years ago, a large swath of the American public was appalled by the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance approach that included a policy of family separation and “kids in cages.” As scholars pointed out, Trump’s “build the wall” mantra actually coincided with a decline in Americans’ support for that policy. For a time, President Biden was within his right to claim a mandate on the issue following his victory because Americans, at least in part, rebuked the Trump Administration for four years of inhumane policies and rhetoric about immigration.
Joe Biden faces tough public sentiment on immigration
Now, things have changed. President Biden currently finds himself on the receiving end of public backlash in an election year with more than two-thirds of the US public saying that they disapprove of his handling of the issue and lending resurging levels of support for the construction of a border wall. The post-pandemic rise in both unauthorized crossings and asylum-seekers has swung American public opinion once again toward restriction as a plurality (48 percent) of Americans think that current immigrants will do more to harm the US in the long run. According to Gallup data from last year, 41 percent of Americans prefer to see immigration levels decrease, a high not observed since 2014 when there was a sharp rise in the arrival of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America. Such shifts in the American public’s sentiments help explain the difficult political landscape presidents face on the issue and the difficulty Congress faces in finding bipartisan solutions.
The backlash against President Biden is occurring despite multiple data points demonstrating current levels of enforcement exceed those during the Trump Administration. Indeed, one analysis found that Biden’s rate of removal during his first 2 years in office (51 percent) exceeded Trump’s rate (47 percent) at a similar time during his tenure. The Biden Administration reported 142,000 ICE deportations in FY 2023 (doubling the number which occurred in FY 2022) and DHS as an entire agency reported conducting “more than 1.2 million expulsions, removals, returns” in just first half of fiscal year 2023 which included hundreds of thousands of Title 42 expulsions. Part of the problem for the Biden Administration is that the media tends to devote far less attention to immigration in moments when authorized crossings decline.
In addition to the pressure from the American public, the Biden Administration is currently facing resistance on immigration from multiple fronts. On one hand, the GOP and right-wing media often conflate concerns about fentanyl and cartel violence with security concerns about migrants and asylum seekers. A notable development from the Republican primary contest has been the increasingly aggressive and militaristic rhetoric directed toward Mexico. Perhaps most concerning for President Biden, however, is the displeasure expressed from members of his own party – most notably by Democrats like New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul. Criticism from these prominent Democrats has created a political challenge for the President which has filtered down to Democrats nationwide.
Why Biden’s White House is ready for an immigration deal.
Current American public opinion towards immigration explains why the Biden Administration is poised to accept many of the demands from congressional Republicans about border enforcement and asylum in exchange for averting a government shutdown. Reports suggest the White House is likely to agree to various demands including “tightening asylum interviews, expanding expedited deportations and creating an authority to expel migrants without humanitarian screenings.” This follows last years’ changes from the Biden Administration which mixed elements of liberalization (increased parole for asylum seekers from a few countries) and restriction (a new rule labelled by some as an “asylum ban” for asylum seekers who crossed between ports of entry without waiting for a CBPOne app appointment) and a flip-flop on border wall construction. The Biden Administration’s changes yielded a measurable decline in authorized entries during the summer of 2023, but the ongoing political instability throughout many Latin American countries, Haiti, and the Middle East and the US’s strong job market has meant that migration flows persist.
The public’s increased tolerance for curtailing immigration likely explains the emergence of other trends suggesting a likely pivot toward increased restrictionism in US immigration, border enforcement, and asylum policy in the short- to medium-term. One is that Republican Governors like Ron DeSantis (FL) and Greg Abbott (TX) have begun experimenting with increasingly aggressive policies based on cruelty towards migrants. Both governors have made headlines for busing migrants to the Democratic-run cities of New York, Chicago, and Denver in an effort to sow chaos. The Biden Administration is engaged in a legal battle with the state of Texas over the concertina wire-wrapped buoys it placed along the Rio Grande River in Eagle Pass and over the implementation of SB4 which would empower state law enforcement officials to detain and arrest migrants suspected of crossing without authorization between ports of entry. The latter case has the potential to upend legal precedent regarding the power of states to engage in immigration enforcement should the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority agree with Abbott’s approach. In the meantime, Texas’s efforts to meddle in immigration enforcement is already producing deadly consequences. Just last week, Texas state officials refused US Border Patrol agents access to a portion of the Rio Grande River and the inability of federal agents to render emergency aid resulted in the death of a woman and two children.
How the public contributes to Trump and Biden’s immigration rhetoric and policies
The US’s turn toward immigration restrictionism would be fully cemented with the re-election of Donald Trump. The news media has begun reporting on the Trump Administration’s immigration plans for a second term in office. These include Trump’s promise to “carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” which would involve redirecting military appropriations and personnel to build large camps that would hold migrants slated for deportation. On the campaign trail, President Trump’s immigration rhetoric has escalated to racist overtones with his controversial comment that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country.
It is easy to critique the Biden Administration for its equivocation on immigration policy or Trump for his increasingly racist rhetoric about immigrants, but something that often goes unmentioned is how the fundamentally illiberal disposition of the American public contributes to these dynamics. The fact of the matter is that the US public tends to support the right to seek asylum only in theory and tends to value immigration more so in the abstract than in practice. The American public itself should shoulder some of the blame for the border “crisis” and acknowledge that the self-professed “nation of immigrants” cannot easily abandon a commitment to asylum seeking at the first sign of a “wave” or “surge.”
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