President Biden’s administration recently announced new asylum restrictions and other proposed stringent initiatives to deter an influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. But for some Democrats, the latest crackdowns stand in stark contrast to the “fair and humane immigration system” that Biden once promised voters following the harsher policies of his predecessors, Donald Trump and Barack Obama.
A number of reporters (including my colleague Nathaniel Rakich) have speculated that Biden’s pivot to the center represents an attempt to shore up electoral weak spots as he prepares for his imminent reelection campaign; after all, Americans regularly tell pollsters that they trust Republicans on immigration more than Democrats. And, sure, there are likely practical considerations at play, too — the 2022 fiscal year set a record for migrant encounters with border patrol at the southern border with Mexico.
The good news for Biden, though, is that even though his latest moves have drawn ire from notable progressives — who have even compared his tack on immigration to Trump’s — he probably won’t face blowback from Democratic voters in 2024. For one thing, Biden isn’t facing a competitive primary (at least not now) and the general election is still far away. But not only is immigration usually less of an important issue to Democrats than Republicans, recent data also suggests that Americans might not be quite as pro-immigration as they were previously.
The flip side is that, like Obama, Biden will likely face pressure from his base to advance immigrant rights in some way between now and next November. The Obama administration’s answer to this, according to Cristobal Ramón, an independent immigration policy consultant, was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — DACA — program, which was created in 2012.
“Unless there’s a major flashpoint on the border, I don’t see this being the defining issue that will cause the administration more heartburn,” Ramón said. “At the end of the day, I think Biden is banking on the idea that people care more about lower numbers at the border than differences in immigration policy. But even if the administration is able to temporarily bring numbers down, they’ll need to explain to voters how their policies are different from, say, candidate Trump.”
In the context of the tough stances taken by both of Biden’s Democratic predecessors (Obama and former President Bill Clinton), the president’s latest moves aren’t that shocking. Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside who focuses on the politics of race and immigration, told me that the reality of governing, coupled with an influx of migrants at the southern border, may have tested Biden’s once-high-minded aspirations on immigration. And with a pandemic-era rule allowing for rapid expulsions set to expire in May, it’s possible that Biden thought the best path forward was to enact more restrictions on how people can seek asylum, among other things. “During campaigns, Democratic candidates make promises on immigration,” Ramakrishnan said. “But once they get into office they find a much more complicated terrain to navigate.”
As I’ve reported previously, though, Democrats have long struggled to meaningfully address immigration — in part because there isn’t a clear consensus within the party on the issue. Not only is public opinion all over the place — voters generally support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, along with rigorous border security and the enforcement of existing immigration laws — but there are longstanding fissures between Democratic politicians’ more progressive and moderate wings. Immigration is also tightly intertwined with another issue Democrats have struggled to address: crime. For example, Trump frequently justified strict anti-immigration policies by claiming, without evidence, that unauthorized immigrants commit crimes at disproportionate rates.
Because Biden is unlikely to be running in a competitive primary, unlike in 2019, there’s less pressure for him to show off his progressive bona fides on these issues and gives him space to move toward the middle without hurting himself politically. In fact, it’s possible that his latest moves might even shore up support among conservative and moderate Democrats, who tend to adopt more hardline stances on border issues than their liberal counterparts. For example, according to a poll from The Pew Research Center poll conducted Aug. 1-14, 2022, conservative and moderate Democrats supported policies like increased security along the U.S.-Mexico border (70 percent) and more deportations of immigrants here illegally (50 percent). For that matter, even a significant minority of liberal Democrats supported these policies (44 percent and 25 percent, respectively).
Another survey, from NPR/Ipsos, conducted July 28-29, 2022, found that 41 percent of Democrats believed that comparing the record border crossings to an “invasion” was at least “somewhat true,” while 34 percent said it was “completely false” and 25 percent said they didn’t know. And according to a Gallup poll released in February, only 28 percent of Americans overall are satisfied with the current level of immigration — the lowest in a decade. Relatively few Democrats (19 percent) are dissatisfied and want the current level of immigration to be decreased — but that share has risen from only two percent in 2021, and only 12 percent are dissatisfied and want the current level of immigration to be increased.
Immigration has — and probably always will be — an incredibly divisive issue. But, as Ramón told me, it’s not clear whether Biden is becoming more conservative on immigration so much as he’s reverting back to where his predecessors were (which makes sense, in some ways, considering he was vice president under Obama.)
“He shifted back to where Democrats have been on the border for a long time, which is significantly more hardline than the views many Democrats hold now,” he said. “At the end of the day, the administration saw the numbers of the border, realized Biden was facing a potentially significant political issue and decided to focus on prior positions that Democratic administrations have relied on. That’s the story of this administration in a nutshell.”
And Biden is still more progressive than some of his predecessors. Among recent Democratic presidents, Clinton arguably took the most hardline stance on crime and immigration. Not only did he help create the immigration enforcement system as we know it today through his signing of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, but he even ran on a reelection platform that said, “We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it.” Of course, back then, his decision to get tough on immigration was part of a larger effort by Democrats to push against GOP attacks that they were “soft” on crime. But that crusade continued during Obama’s administration, too, primarily through stepping up enforcement efforts, which ultimately led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of unauthorized migrants.
In more recent memory, Democrats have moved further left on these issues — Biden even expressed regret over the Obama administration’s immigration policies — but the president’s immigration stance was always more conservative than many of his once-rivals, and it didn’t stop him from winning the Democratic nomination in 2020. And, again, it’s possible that these moderate to conservative stances won’t be a death knell for his impending reelection bid, especially if it helps him win over more moderate and conservative Democrats and if he’s able to take credit for decreasing the number of migrant encounters at the southern border.
“What Biden’s doing now is trying to signal a more moderate stance, and one that shows effective control over the border, to deflect against any criticism that his administration does not have the ability to maintain border control,” Ramakrishnan said. “Voters expect the president to be able to enforce and maintain law and order. So part of this is to blunt any critique of lawlessness.”
In the end, though, whether taking more strict stances on border-related issues helps or hurts Biden next year ultimately might come down to how much voters care about these issues come next year. Historically, immigration hasn’t really been a top issue for Democrats, so it’s easy to see why it’s an easy place for Biden to moderate. And remember: Biden was never a liberal darling on immigrant rights to begin with.