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The Democrats’ Immigration Problem
It’s just getting worse.
Most people have long forgotten—if they ever noticed to begin with—that the Biden administration did, in fact, propose an ambitious immigration reform bill very early in Biden’s tenure. Ambitious, but without the remotest chance of passing. Republicans, to no one’s surprise, did not sign on to a bill that did almost nothing to address their concerns about border security.
At the time, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, from TX-28, a heavily Hispanic border district, presciently remarked:
Hey, we don’t want the wall, but when it comes to the other issues, we gotta be careful that we don't give the impression that we have open borders because otherwise the numbers are going to start going up. And surely enough, we’re starting to see numbers go up.
Also around that time, I wrote:
Democrats moving forward have to accept the reality of American public opinion and politics that border security is a huge issue that cannot be elided in any attempt to reform the immigration system. Indeed, the most popular part of the current immigration bill is the provision most directly related to border security (technologically enhanced port of entry screening) according to Morning Consult. And public opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security.
This suggests a serious revamp of the Democratic approach to immigration flows and immigration reform. The public has indeed become more sympathetic to immigrants and immigration, partially as a thermostatic reaction to the practices of the Trump administration. But that does not mean that Democrats can simply be the opposite of Trump on this issue. He was closed; we’re open! He was mean; we’re nice! Any moves toward greater leniency at the border and the creation of legalization regimes for undocumented immigrants raises the possibility of knock-on effects and unintended consequences that would be highly unpopular. How do you prevent people from gaming the system? How do you handle the possibility of surges at the border to take advantage of leniency and legalization regimes? Any immigration reform package worth its salt must have serious answers to these questions.
America is a very desirable destination and it is simply a fact that many more people want to come here than can possibly be accommodated. Therefore, choices will have to be made about the numbers to be let in. What is, in fact, a desirable level of legal immigration? If Democrats wish it to be much higher, which is a defensible position, then they must have an answer for who these people should be. How are slots to be allocated—would the country be served well by moving to more a skill-based system or at least a hybrid that leans in that direction? And if the immigration system is to be more generous, how are levels of illegal immigration to be controlled? It will not do to make the immigration system more generous, while doing little to control flows of illegal immigration. Most of all, voters want an immigration system that is both reasonably generous and humane and under control. Democrats ignore the “under control” part at their peril.
I think it’s fair to say that the Biden administration did not heed this counsel and that of others who made similar points. Instead, an initial moratorium on deportations and a multitude of other actions the administration took clearly signaled that there was to be a very different regime at the border than there was under Trump. This regime was touted as being more ‘humanitarian” and “compassionate” but prospective migrants, predictably enough, interpreted it more simply as “easier to get in” if you come. And come they did.
Two straight years of record-breaking illegal immigrant border crossings followed. Some were turned away of course but a large proportion (76 percent) remained in the U.S. Recently, that proportion may be even higher. The situation is exacerbated by the thoroughly broken asylum system. It is being systematically gamed by arriving migrants who are briefed by smugglers and social media on exactly what to say to establish themselves as asylum-seekers.
Lately, the situation has gotten even worse. After a brief pause in illegal border crossings after Title 42 was lifted in May, accompanied by some new programs (including—what else?—an app!) that would supposedly tamp down such activity and promote lawful channels, illegal immigration has once again surged. The Washington Post reported on the efficacy of these new programs:
“What is the point of the CBP appointment? My brother surrendered, and he got through. We know too many stories of people who got through without an appointment,” said Yonder Linarez, 28, who was traveling with 10 members of his extended family.
Linarez said he planned to cross the border and turn himself in to U.S. agents Wednesday evening at the border wall. “We tried it, but it took too long,” he said. “If we’ve endured the jungle, robbery and everything else to get here, you think not having an appointment is going to stop us?”
So migrants are pouring through the dangerous Darien Gap and any other route that will get them to the U.S.-Mexican border on the not-unreasonable expectation that, once there, they will be processed and released into the U.S. In September, a new single-month record was set for illegal border crossings. That included 103,000 parents traveling with children, also a record.
Famously, this influx has now spread across the country including to a number of very blue cities and states who are now complaining loudly about the strain on their resources, despite their professed policies of being “sanctuaries” for such illegal entrants. Half of the hotel rooms in New York City are now occupied by these migrants and 600 more are arriving every day in the city. Similar stories of being completely overwhelmed by the migrant influx abound across the country.
In short, the situation is out of control—exactly what most voters don’t want and they are reacting accordingly. In a recent Washington Post poll, Biden’s approval rating on “handling the immigration situation at the U.S.-Mexico border” was a rock-bottom 23 percent. That includes an abysmal 19 percent among working-class (noncollege) respondents, 24 percent among political independents, 27 percent among moderates and, interestingly, just 24 percent among Hispanics. A recent Echelon Insights poll provided a breakout for “pure independents” (the swingiest independents who don’t lean toward either party) for Biden’s approval rating on immigration and found it to be just 14 percent (!) In a just-released Fox poll, 71 percent of voters say “the current level of security at the nation’s borders” is not strict enough, including 82 percent of independents and 77 percent of moderates. Even 63 percent of Hispanic voters agree with that assessment.
Talk about losing the center of the electorate. No wonder the most recent NBC poll found Republicans favored over Democrats on handling border security by a whopping 30 points. It should be clear by now that Democrats have followed the wrong path on the immigration issue. A better approach is suggested by recent data from The Liberal Patriot/YouGov survey.
The survey asked voters to choose from three options:
People around the world have the right to claim asylum and America should welcome more immigrants into the country;
America needs to secure its borders and create more legal and managed immigration paths to bring in skilled professionals and workers to help our economy grow; or
America needs to close its borders to outsiders and reduce all levels of immigration.
Under a quarter (24 percent) chose the first option, emphasizing the right to asylum and admitting more immigrants, which is closely associated with the Democratic Party. By far the most popular option was the second one, emphasizing border security and skilled immigration, which 59 percent favored. The draconian third option, which favors just closing the border and reducing all immigration was chosen by 17 percent. The latter two positions outnumber the permissive first position by three to one.
Among moderates, the second position was chosen by an overwhelming 66 percent and just 18 percent favored the permissive first position, not much more than the 16 percent who favor the draconian third position. Among the swing-y pure independent group, the story was similar: 62 percent chose the second position and 19 percent chose the first and third positions, respectively.
It seems quite unlikely that Biden’s half-hearted attempt to build another 20 miles of Trump’s wall will do much to change his party’s image on this issue. Indeed, while it is annoying the AOC wing of his party, it will do essentially nothing to change the situation on the ground and therefore the low regard in which his party is held.
That’s a big problem—a really big problem. At this point, Democrats appear to be hoping that the immigration issue is just not very salient to voters in 2024 or that other issues are so much more salient (e.g., abortion) that their huge disadvantage on immigration won’t matter much. In what promises to be a very close election against a probable opponent who will be more than happy to demagogue the issue, this seem like a very unwise course, if not an outright gift to your opponent.