Biden mulls border crackdown in face of Trump’s migrant-bashing rhetoric

<span>Photograph: Rebecca Noble/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Rebecca Noble/Reuters
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Heading into the heat of the 2024 election season, Joe Biden is weighing major changes to US immigration policy that would toughen border enforcement and address an issue that has emerged as one of the president’s biggest political vulnerabilities ahead of a likely rematch against his anti-immigration rival Donald Trump.

But it is also a risk for Biden, who entered the White House in 2021 promising to “restore humanity and American values to our immigration system” after Trump’s four-year crackdown on immigration.

Shortly after being sworn in, Biden set to work unwinding his Republican predecessor’s immigration policies and, at the same time, sent Congress a sprawling legislative proposal that included pathways to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the US.

Related: How Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is taking over the Republican party

That aspirational legislation landed with a resounding thud on Capitol Hill, where Democratic leaders had little appetite for a political scrap over the perennially thorny issue of immigration reform. But the politics of immigration have shifted sharply to the right since then, leaving Democrats – and the president – in a political bind as they negotiate with Republicans over border measures they once denounced.

Exceptionally high levels of migration at the southern border with Mexico – and withering Republican attacks on the president’s response – have vaulted immigration to the fore. On Wednesday, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, met with Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for talks aimed at limiting migrants reaching the US south-western border.

A bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers have been engaged in talks with the White House over a border deal that would unlock aid to Ukraine and Israel.

“We all know there’s a problem at the border – the president does, Democrats do,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said before sending senators home for their holiday recess. “Our goal is to get something done as soon as we get back.”

But for many Democratic officials, immigration activists and progressive leaders, the dramatic changes Biden is considering to asylum law and border enforcement are nearly indistinguishable from the policies of his predecessor. They argue that the US has a humanitarian responsibility to provide refuge to the millions of migrants fleeing violence, poverty and natural disasters.

“A return to Trump-era policies is not the fix. In fact it will make the problem worse,” the California senator Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said in a speech on the steps of the Capitol earlier this month, in which he urged the president to oppose Republicans’ border security proposals. “Mass detention, gutting our asylum system, Title 42 on steroids. It is unconscionable.”

Yet for many Americans, especially Republicans, the upswing in undocumented migrants arriving at the southern border is an urgent concern.

Nearly half of US adults said tightening security at the US-Mexico border should be a “high priority” for the federal government, according to an AP-NORC poll. Meanwhile, surveys consistently show deep, cross-party dissatisfaction with Biden’s handling of immigration and border security.

In a December Wall Street Journal poll, 13% of voters ranked immigration and the US-Mexico border as their top issue, second only to concerns about the economy. It found voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of the border by a more than two-to-one margin. And asked who voters believed would better handle the issue, 54% said Trump compared with 24% who said Biden – by far the widest spread between the two candidates of all the issues tested.

It marks a reversal from the Trump years, when voters tended to give Democrats the edge on immigration and largely rejected Republican efforts to stoke fear over migration.

Democrats have long struggled to articulate a cohesive, proactive immigration agenda. Their divisions over how to fix the nation’s tattered immigration system faded during the Trump years, as the party united against his immigrant-bashing rhetoric and hardline policies. In 2020, Biden campaigned on a promise to reverse Trump’s approach.

But as record numbers of undocumented immigrants arrive at the border, and seek shelter in cities hundreds of miles away, Biden is under pressure from Republican critics and Democratic allies to address a problem that both parties now agree has reached “crisis” levels.

“It is a very dangerous moment politically that this White House is operating in,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group.

Cárdenas said the answer was not to “cave” to Republican demands but to double down on the administration’s “unprecedented” efforts to expand legal immigration pathways and work permits.

She acknowledged the limitations of what Biden can achieve through executive action, but urged the president to be “bold” or risk further alienating core Democratic constituencies, such as young people and progressives.

“This administration needs to show that they’re willing to [do] something meaningful for immigrant communities,” she said. “Unless they do that, it’s going to be really hard for people who care about immigration and immigrant rights to vote for them.”

But the president appears willing to gamble that a deal with Republicans on border security will do more politically to help than hurt. Those who agree say supporters of immigrant rights are unlikely to back Trump, whose policies they abhor, and will likely be motivated to turn out by other issue such as abortion and democracy.

“As far as the Democrats are concerned, this is a big liability,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of, Where Have All the Democrats Gone? “They would be wise to start trying to undo some of the damage here.”

In focus groups, Teixeira says voters, including Latinos, express deep anxieties about migration and view the border as “out of control”. He said Biden needed to stop worrying about the blowback from immigrant rights groups and progressives and start boasting about the actions his administration is taking to stem the flow of migrants, such as building a section of Trump’s wall.

“To simply do it and then shamefacedly allude to it every once in a while and say your hands are tied, it’s the worst of both worlds,” he said. “He gets attacked by the left of his party and voters have no idea what he did.”

Earlier this year, a number of Republican governors began bussing and flying thousands of migrants from their states, especially Texas, to Democratic-led cities such as New York, Washington and Chicago, a tactic condemned by immigrant rights groups as inhumane and nakedly political. But it also highlighted the strain facing US cities, where Democratic officials say an influx of migrants has overwhelmed shelters, schools and hospitals.

In recent months, several Democratic mayors and governors have called on the White House to step up its federal response to what the Illinois governor, JB Pritzker, called a “national humanitarian crisis”.

After a three-month rise that approached all-time highs, arrests for illegal crossings along the southern border fell 14% in October before ticking up again in November, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

Despite concerns about the border, a July Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans still consider immigration a good thing for the country. And Democrats note that Republicans are demanding new restrictions on legal immigration as economists say the US needs more workers to address labor shortages.

“We need workers. We need a workforce. We’ve got to be competitive in the future,” Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat, said recently. “Immigrants make us better.”


For much of his presidency, Biden described the wave of migration to the US as a hemispheric challenge, with rising violence, economic crises and political upheaval pushing millions of migrants to America’s borders. In response, the Biden administration has pursued a combination of new legal pathways for immigrants to enter the country with more restrictions for those who cross the border illegally.

Aspects of the approach have earned praise from immigrant rights groups. But some have also accused the administration of policy “whiplash”.

This year, the Biden administration extended temporary legal status to nearly 500,000 Venezuelans who arrived in the US before 31 July, fleeing the economic and humanitarian crisis in their home country. Weeks later, the US announced it was resuming deportation flights to Venezuela. The move, which sparked fierce backlash from immigrant rights groups, came after border agents arrested more Venezuelans than Mexicans for the first time.

The Biden administration also recently announced that it had no choice but to build up to 20 miles of barriers along the border with Mexico, breaking a campaign pledge not to build another foot of Trump’s border wall. The administration, which waived more than 20 federal laws and regulations to allow for the construction of barriers in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, said it had no choice in the matter because the funds had already been authorized by Congress during Trump’s presidency.

On the campaign trail, Biden is focusing on his rival. The president recently condemned Trump’s demonizing rhetoric, including nativist comments that undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country” and a vow to be a dictator on “day one” to close the southern border with Mexico. His campaign has also seized on reports that Trump is planning an even harsher immigration crackdown if elected to a second term with plans that include mass deportations and detention camps.

Meanwhile, the White House says Trump’s immigration policies are to blame for creating some of the backlog that is overwhelming immigration courts. Officials also argue that Congressional Republicans have stood in the way of requests to fund more border patrol agents, social workers, judges and court officials.

But those arguments have so far failed to resonate with voters who believe the president has done little to address the problem. If the border talks between the Senate and the White House are successful, the White House hopes it will enable Biden to show progress on an issue that’s dogged his presidency.

Some Democrats are skeptical. They accuse Republicans of negotiating in bad faith, saying they are only interested in weaponizing the issue, not addressing it. Cárdenas said Republicans won’t stop attacking Biden on immigration, even if he meets their border enforcement demands.

“The goalposts always get moved,” she said. “And then you’re stuck with policies that don’t even address the problem in the first place.”