Three years into his term, President Biden has not been able to solve the problems of illegal immigration and border security. The number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has reached an all-time high. Public perceptions that the border is out of control are a burden that the president will carry into the 2024 election. The issue itself remains a hole in the Democratic Party’s policy agenda.
All of that provides some of the backdrop for what took place this past week. Amid clamor for action by some Democratic mayors and governors whose cities have been overwhelmed by an influx of migrants, Biden administration officials announced new actions last week, including the waiving of environmental laws and regulations to speed construction of a barrier on a section of the border in South Texas.
The decision, along with one to restart direct deportation flights to Venezuela, was seen as at least a course correction by the administration. Some of the president’s harsher critics regarded the announcement about the wall as a 180-degree shift in policy.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who has faced harsh scrutiny from congressional Republicans, insisted that the decision was not a reversal at all. The administration, he said, was obliged to build the new barriers because Congress had appropriated money for that purpose. In a statement, he repeated what administration officials have said previously, that a wall “is not the answer” to border security. At the same time, the order noted an “acute and immediate need” to start the construction.
Biden, too, declared that his view of a border wall was unchanged. As a candidate, he was dismissive of then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to erect a barrier along much of the U.S.-Mexico border. “There will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration,” he said in August 2020. Biden issued an executive order at the start of his presidency stopping construction of the wall, even though some money from Congress remained unspent. He says now he still does not think a wall is effective.
The timing of all this is curious, given that the money was approved while Trump was president. The announcements came days after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) sent a letter to the White House pleading for the federal government to deal with problems at the border, which he said had created “an untenable situation” for his state. They came as newly elected Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson (D) said he would be traveling to the border to assess the situation.
The decisions on the border barrier and deportation flights were announced at a moment when New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) was on a tour to Mexico and Central America to personally deliver a message that migrants are not welcome in his city. And the administration’s action also came after New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) said on CBS’s “Face The Nation” that she wanted to see “a limit on who can come across the border,” only to soften her language later after criticism from other Democrats.
This happened, in other words, as the voices of unhappy blue-state Democratic elected officials grew louder, to go along with long-standing and much harsher criticism from red-state Republican leaders including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as well as congressional Republicans.
Immigration policy is vexing and complicated, requiring the balancing of compassion, humaneness and the enforcement of U.S. laws. At a time of declining birthrates and an aging population, the United States needs immigrants to replenish the workforce. Yet the absence of secure borders amounts to national security vulnerabilities and raises questions about U.S. sovereignty. That is part of a big and ongoing debate. Politically, however, the issue of the day is record flows of illegal immigration.
From the beginning of the Biden presidency, immigration policy has come in two parts. Part one was a proposal for a comprehensive package of changes to the laws, including a path to citizenship for most of the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the United States. The president sent that request to Congress early in his administration, but it has gone nowhere.
The second part, focused on the border, has been shaped to contrast with Trump’s policies and the former president’s toxic, anti-immigrant rhetoric. The Biden team sought a more humane approach to the flood of migrants as a corrective to the inhumane separation of families that symbolized the worst of Trump-era policy.
Comprehensive immigration reform has enjoyed public support, but it has been stuck in Congress for decades. When he was president in the 2000s, George W. Bush tried to pass such legislation, only to be undone by a backlash from members of his own Republican Party. During the presidency of Barack Obama, the Senate passed legislation with a bipartisan majority. That measure died in the House because of opposition by hard-line Republicans.
The Biden administration has tried various approaches to stemming the flow of illegal immigration and has gradually toughened its policies. At times, officials believed things were being brought under control, only to see fresh surges of migrants.
In previous periods when the flow of migrants was highest, most of the illegal border crossings were by Mexicans. In recent years, that subsided and for a time, more Mexican immigrants were leaving the United States to return home than were coming here illegally. More recently, the issue has been asylum seekers or those who claim they would be threatened if sent home. Mostly they are from Central American countries, but over the past few years, roughly half a million have arrived from the South American nation of Venezuela.
Many of them have ended up in cities including New York and Chicago, so many that officials in those cities say they do not have the resources to handle them. The administration recently gave those Venezuelan migrants temporary legal status, which will allow them to find work. It’s too early to know how much that will help.
Biden rarely talks about the border. He prefers to talk about the economy, as he did Friday in response to the report that the economy added 336,000 jobs last month, significantly above forecasts. On the economy, his approval ratings are low and inflation remains fixed in the minds of many Americans as a serious problem, but he does have some positive things to talk about.
That is not the case with immigration, which may be one reason he has been reluctant to highlight the issue. He gave a speech on the subject in January and spent a few hours on the ground in El Paso that month to assess the situation. Vice President Harris was given the task of working with other countries to help alleviate the pressures that have prompted so many people to leave their homes and make the long and dangerous (and costly) trip to the U.S. border. But many of those changes will take time. Harris has not been willing to take responsibility for border policy.
Public approval of Biden’s handling of the immigration situation at the border is at a low point. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 23 percent of Americans said they approve of the job he’s done, while 62 percent disapprove. That is a 14-percentage-point drop since the early months of his presidency and lower than his approval rating on the economy.
Biden has been buffeted by divisions within the Democratic Party. The party’s liberal wing and many of those in the activist Latino community have opposed more stringent policies. The absence of consensus among Democrats and the apparent hesitance to develop a tougher policy for securing the border have given Republicans wide berth to criticize Biden. Fox News amplifies unrest and dissatisfaction with its near-constant focus on border issues, and House Republicans have made it one of their major talking points, with little effective response from Democrats.
At one of the early Democratic presidential debates in 2019, all but one of 10 candidates on the stage said they would support making crossing the border a civil rather than a criminal violation. Biden was one of those who took that position. It would be instructive to repeat that question in today’s climate of concern about the border. Biden continues to struggle with both the policy and the politics of the issue, and his party has given him no help.