Moving Right on Immigration is Both Cruel and Politically Reckless

Biden's recent executive order halting asylum only normalizes right-wing immigration policy, giving the Right permission to get even more draconian.

As the election draws nearer, President Biden is tacking hard to the right on immigration. He has just unveiled an executive order that is even more restrictive on the right to claim asylum than the bipartisan bill that fell apart earlier this year. Biden’s executive order halts asylum processing  at the border when arrests for illegal entry reach 2,500 per day. Since the number of people crossing each day is currently hovering around 3,000, this means that, for the time being, migrants are forbidden from claiming asylum.

The legal right to asylum is not only protected under international law but has been enshrined in American law since the Refugee Act of 1980 granted anyone with a “well-founded fear of persecution” the legal right to come to a legal U.S. point of entry and plead their case for protection in a “complex and lengthy process, involving multiple government agencies,” as the ACLU has explained.

We have seen that previous restrictions on asylum claims have resulted in direct harm to thousands of migrants who were in danger elsewhere. For example, during the first two years of his presidency, Biden continued Trump’s use of Title 42 restrictions, which used the COVID-19 pandemic as a justification to expel asylum seekers without a hearing. Human Rights First found that as a result of this policy, “13,480 asylum seekers and migrants [were reported] targeted for kidnappings, torture, sexual assault and other human rights abuses.”

Think of what a shift this is for Biden. During the Trump era, he attacked the president and fellow Republicans for enacting cruel and restrictive immigration policies such as family separations and the Muslim ban. One of Biden’s central campaign messages in the 2020 election was about reversing these policies. In 2018, he described the humane treatment of migrants as part of a “battle for the soul of the country” and focused his immigration rhetoric on ameliorating “the root causes of migration.” Now he is faulting Republicans for “refus[ing]” to “take the necessary steps to secure our border.” 

Biden is now essentially enacting Trump’s policy for him, accepting the right’s framing that undocumented immigrants are a menacing threat when the evidence does not bear that out. When asked why he’s suddenly enacting Trump’s immigration policy, he has attempted to distinguish himself by saying “I will never demonize immigrants. I will never refer to immigrants as poisoning the blood of our country. And further, I’ll never separate children from their families at the border. I will not ban people from this country because of their religious beliefs.” In other words, his issue with Trump is not the cruelty of his policies, but the cruelty of his words.1 Also, it should be noted that Biden’s claim that “he’ll never” separate families is a big lie. His administration has been separating families.

Biden’s shift on immigration obviously has a lot to do with courting swing voters for the upcoming election. The New York Times portrayed it as a shrewd choice that “aligned him with a broad swath of the public on a key issue in an election year.”

On the surface, one could perceive the shift as a savvy, if cynical, move. Since the beginning of the year, Gallup polls have found that Americans believe immigration is the “most important problem” facing the nation, even more than the economy or inflation. 

And for voters that oppose Biden, a Gallup poll conducted in January found that the issue they most frequently cited was “Illegal immigration/Open borders.” In April, a New York Times/Siena poll found that approval of Trump’s immigration policy was 18 percent higher than Biden’s across all voters.

These polls often don’t distinguish between those who disapprove of Biden’s immigration policy for being too lax vs. those who disapprove of it for being too harsh. If one assumes that all voters who disapprove view it as too lax, you might think that a policy to aggressively curb immigration would, therefore, help Biden make up ground with voters he’s losing. 

But that doesn’t appear to be the case. An Emerson College poll taken the week after the new executive order went into effect found that 38 percent of voters approved, 39 percent disapproved, and 23 percent were unsure how they felt about the restriction. A Morning Consult poll of voters in early June was even more damning. Voters’ feelings about his immigration policy had gotten worse over the past month, with disapproval rising from 53 to 56 percent. 

What’s going on here? Biden is giving voters what they want, right? Why aren’t they responding? 

Because the people most likely to vote based on immigration are Republicans. Let’s look back at that Gallup poll that found that immigration was the number one issue facing the country. That could give the impression that Biden has a huge, bipartisan mandate to curb immigration. But, if you look at the partisan breakdown of the polling, it looks like this:

While there’s somewhat of an uptick in independents caring about immigration, it’s dwarfed by the number of Republicans who began to consider it their number one priority. When this is considered at the candidate level, the difference is even more pronounced. In May, New York Times/Siena polls from six swing states found that 23 percent of Trump voters said immigration was “the one issue most important in deciding [their] vote this November” compared with just 1 percent of Biden voters. 

With this in mind, the failure of Biden’s immigration crackdown to move the needle starts to make a lot more sense. The people who consider immigrants to be the greatest plague facing American society don’t want somebody like Biden, who postures as tough and sensible but still claims to want to treat them with compassion. How could they? They’ve been told over and over that  rapists, drug lords, and murderers are pouring into the country and that Democrats will allow these hordes to fraudulently vote (or somehow instantly receive citizenship—even worse!) in order to usher in a communist dystopia. They want the cleansing fire that Trump represents. They want the wall. They want the invasion of Mexico. They want Operation Wetback 3.0.2 They will never, ever, ever vote for Biden even if he gives them everything they want because they can get the same or greater violence—and in a much more theatrical form—from Trump. 

So Biden just threw a bunch of vulnerable migrants into a wood chipper to satiate people who will almost certainly never vote for him. This is bad. But it gets worse. We still haven’t looked at the other end of this equation: how it will alienate the majority of Americans who are not hostile to immigration. Polls have definitely shown a shift towards harsher policies in recent years. But as of mid-2023, a majority of Americans still said they want the number of immigrants entering the country to either increase or stay the same, while more than two-thirds of Americans still said they believed immigration was a net good.

This move is also likely to alienate a lot of the voters who have already been abandoning Biden: Young people and racial minorities.

According to a YouGov survey from 2022, people ages 65 and older are vastly more concerned about immigration than younger generations. Older voters also happen to be the most rock-solid Biden supporters entering election season despite the portrayals of Biden as lax on the border.

 

The war in Gaza is the issue where Biden’s failure with young voters is the most visible. But his immigration policies are actually a more commonly cited reason why they’ve jumped ship, second only behind the economy. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found in January that approval of Biden’s immigration policy was lower among 18- to 29-year-olds than the general public. But looking at other polls, this doesn’t seem to be the result of anti-immigration sentiment, but the opposite. The 2024 Harvard Youth Poll, a nationwide survey conducted by the Kennedy School, found that most young people overwhelmingly reject the idea that immigrants bring crime or take Americans’ jobs and agree with the idea that they improve the culture of the United States. And indeed, the most detailed poll on Biden’s asylum ban, from Monmouth University, shows the lowest approval among young voters.3

A lot has also been made about the shift of Latino voters toward Trump and toward more hawkish immigration positions. But they still have more pro-immigration positions on the whole than the general population: According to a Pew survey from March of this year, considerable majorities say they want to see more immigration judges appointed to process asylum applications, more opportunities for legal immigration, and approvals for asylum seekers to work while their claims are processed. An Immigration Hub poll of Latinos in swing states from 2023, similarly, found that huge majorities wanted Biden to prioritize citizenship access for undocumented immigrants, protect DREAMers, and expand Temporary Protected Status to more immigrants. Monmouth’s poll did not list results for Latinos as a separate demographic, but it found that non-white voters collectively (a category that included those identifying as “Hispanic”) were, compared to whites, more likely to say Biden’s asylum ban was “too tough” and less likely to say it was “not tough enough.”

Perhaps even more telling than the polls is how Hispanic members of Congress are reacting to Biden’s order. He has received rebukes from across the party, including from many members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has grown increasingly frustrated with Biden due to his shift on immigration. Lawmakers including Chairwoman Nanette Barragán, Biden-Harris 2024 campaign co-chair Veronica Escobar, Jesús “Chuy” García, and Delia Ramirez signed a letter criticizing the order. Ramirez lamented “hearing some Democrats say things” about immigration “that I would never have imagined.” And perhaps the strongest response came from Caucus member Greg Casar of Texas, who said in an MSNBC interview: 

The Republican Party here in Congress tries to cover up its own failures by scapegoating immigration. […] Unfortunately, it created this political pressure that has the President today responding by restricting asylum, which isn’t going to work because it doesn’t actually reduce the number of people being pushed out of their homes in Latin America.

If we want to address what’s going on in our community on immigration, we should finally provide protections to our dreamers and to longtime families here. And then third, we need to do what folks in D.C. don’t want to talk about which is how are U.S. policies actually contributing, especially in places like Latin America, to starvation and poverty and violence that is pushing people out of their homes in record numbers?

Casar identifies perhaps the most damaging aspect of all of this. Democrats are allowing the right to control the conversation about immigration by accepting their framing of it as a problem of crime. Not only does this approach needlessly put more migrants in life-threatening situations, but it also detracts from efforts to address the root causes of why migrants are fleeing their homes in the first place. 

But it also does something even more sinister: By adopting Trump’s policies, which were understood to be cruel and racist years ago, Biden is enabling the right’s experimentation with even more grandiose assaults on immigrants, things that they probably assumed until now they could never get away with. Say what you will about the many flaws of Democrats during the Trump era. But one of the unabashedly good things they did—perhaps purely out of defiance to Trump more so than any real principle—was restart a public dialogue about the benefits of immigration. 

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It’s easy to forget now, but opposing Trump’s wall, his Muslim ban, his attempts to dismantle DACA, and his family separation policies were things that mainstream Democrats turned into central parts of their rhetoric. Some elected Democrats, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even (briefly) brought to the mainstream the idea of abolishing ICE. And on the 2020 Democratic primary debate stage, all ten participants raised their hands when asked whether their healthcare plans would include coverage for undocumented immigrants.

Think of how far we have regressed since then: We’ve reached the point where the more liberal presidential candidate is carrying out many of Trump’s immigration policies. 

When Democrats normalize right-wing immigration policy, that also gives the right permission to go even more draconian. Trump has made it pretty clear what the next step is: It’s rounding up 15 million people, putting them into internment camps, and deporting them. Maybe conservatives would have reached that point anyway, but it’s hard to imagine it would have happened this quickly if Democrats hadn’t turned 2017 Trump into a moderate.

Notes

1. A similar sentiment was expressed by liberal New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, who recently wrote a column arguing that “Biden is right to curb immigration.” He wrote, “Given the choices, I trust Biden more than Trump to adopt tougher policies that are still sane and that don’t demonize refugees.” The logic here is stunningly fascistic, revealing Kristof to be utterly devoid of principle.


2. Always nostalgic for the past, they’d like a redo of the 1954 mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals, which followed a prior wave of removal of up to 2 million people of Mexican ancestry in the ’30s and ’40s, with more than half of those being U.S. citizens. ‘Wetback’ is a slur for undocumented immigrants and refers to people, often Mexicans, getting wet crossing the Rio Grande.


3. I hesitate to put too much stock into this poll because it describes Biden’s asylum policy in a way that predisposes the respondent to answer positively. It says, “President Biden recently signed an executive order to secure the U.S. border with Mexico by turning away migrants who seek asylum at the border.” This is a description that seems likely to bias people to think favorably of the policy. For one thing, it takes for granted that blocking off asylum will “secure the border,” which has a positive connotation. (It’s also inaccurate because the number of people crossing the border has only decreased by about 25 percent since the order went into effect—the thing that changed is people’s ability to claim asylum.) The other problem is that it sanitizes the effects of the policy. It doesn’t mention that the migrants being “turned away” are hoping to file for asylum in many cases because they are fleeing danger in their home countries.

 

 

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