Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to reverse what he called the “damage” and “shame” caused by Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
But just weeks into his efforts to keep that promise, Biden is now facing an influx of migrants at the United States-Mexico border, in what his administration is calling a “challenge” and others are labelling a “crisis”.
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The numbers are up significantly: there were over 78,000 enforcement encounters at the southern border in January, according to US Customs and Border Protection, more than double the number that attempted to cross the border in January 2020.
The surge of migrants comes as the Biden administration is struggling to put into place several immigration policy changes that the new president implemented shortly after taking office in January.
“I think there is a challenge at the border that we are managing,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Monday in response to a question about whether he believes there’s a crisis at the border.
When pressed by reporters on the hair-splitting between labelling the situation at the border a “challenge” or a “crisis”, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki retorted Tuesday: “I don’t think we need to meet your bar of what we need to call it.”
Republicans naturally are going to home in on the effects of Biden’s immigration policies; Trump had telegraphed as much during the campaign, accusing Biden of wanting “open borders” and calling his immigration ideas “insane”.
Trump spent a significant portion of his first post-presidential speech on Sunday hammering Biden, using the border as a top example of the new president’s failures.
“In just one short month, we have gone from ‘America First’ to America last,” Trump said. “There’s no better example than the new and horrible crisis on our southern border.”
What is curious is a warning from one of Biden’s fellow Democrats.
“It is not a crisis yet, but it will become a crisis,” Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas told Fox News Tuesday. “The number of unaccompanied kids, the number of families who are coming in are just increasing every day,” he continued.
“So, it’s not a crisis yet, but it’s going to get there very soon.”
Cuellar’s comments come on the heels of a presidential election that saw Trump gain significant support in two counties in his border district.
In Starr and Zapata counties, both along the Texas-Mexico border, Trump saw huge vote increases – he won Zapata by 5 percentage points after losing to Hillary Clinton by 33 points in 2016, and he lost Starr by only 5 points in 2020 after losing there by 60 points in 2016. The most notable part about these statistics? Both counties are 95 percent Hispanic.
Potential political peril
As battered as the Republican Party is at the moment, Democrats, as the party in charge of both houses of Congress and the White House, will win or lose in 2022 based on their political and policy successes and failures.
The brewing immigration “challenge” is one that threatens to become an albatross for Democrats running in next year’s congressional midterms, and Republicans are hoping they can use this to their advantage.
In fact, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already signalled that immigration will be a key focus in Republicans’ efforts to take back control of the House. In an interview with Punchbowl News last month, he listed immigration as one of three key areas Republican candidates will focus on this election cycle.
And polling reveals that the issue may be one of the biggest vulnerabilities for Biden and Democrats.
While Biden generally enjoys favourable approval ratings overall and on his handling of most issues, on immigration, Americans have some concerns.
An Economist/YouGov poll released this week shows 41 percent approve of Biden’s handling of the immigration issue, with 42 percent disapproving, including 32 percent who strongly disapprove. Among those who identify as independent, only 36 percent approve compared to 44 percent who disapprove.
In addition, another poll released this week revealed that Americans are split on whether to reduce enforcement on the border.
According to a Harvard-Harris poll, 49 percent of registered voters approve of the reduction of immigration enforcement in the US leading to fewer arrests and deportations, while 51 percent disapprove. (The Economist/YouGov poll has a margin of error of +/-2.6 percent; the Harvard-Harris poll did not indicate a margin of error).
Biden and the Democrats are walking a fine line: if the situation on the border spirals out of control, they will almost certainly hear about it from Republicans and, perhaps more importantly, from independent – or moderate – voters in battleground districts.
As the president wrestles with the brewing “challenge” along the border, it is quickly becoming clear that the political backlash on immigration may shape up to be its own crisis for Biden and his party.