Douglas Schoen: The southern border remains Biden’s Achilles heel

Unfortunately for the Biden administration, immigration – a considerable Achilles Heel for the President – figures to be a significant issue in the 2024 presidential election. This is surely an unwelcome development for Biden’s reelection prospects, as the president continues to struggle with balancing voters’ demands for border security with the left’s calls for a more sympathetic immigration policy.

To be clear, while the economy and inflation will surely be the top priorities when voters go to the polls next November, immigration will not be far behind. In fact, roughly one-quarter (24%) of registered voters say immigration is the most important issue facing the country, just slightly lower than those saying the economy (26%), and inflation (34%) – the top concern – according to a recent Harvard-Harris poll.

Moreover, immigration is one of Biden’s biggest vulnerabilities. Only 31% of Americans – including 27% of Independents – approve of how Biden has handled immigration. Comparatively, nearly 4-in-10 (37%) Americans approve of the president’s handling of the economy, per Gallup polling.

Closer to home, while California’s left-leaning immigration policies are well supported in the state – two-thirds of Californians believe immigrants are a benefit to California and a majority (55%) approve providing healthcare coverage to undocumented migrants – red state governors have increasingly sent migrants to the Golden State in an effort to publicize the issue, with implications for a handful of competitive Southern California districts which both parties are targeting, and which may determine which party controls the next Congress.

Specifically, in the 40th, 45th, 47th, and 49th districts – all of which have been competitive in recent years – immigration will likely be a key issue for voters, especially if Republicans can convince voters that Biden’s policies are responsible for the surging migrant crisis.

Indeed, Biden’s struggles on immigration come amid a growing humanitarian catastrophe at the southern border, upending months of steady decline in illegal border crossings. The Washington Post reported that August saw a record number of migrant families cross the U.S. – Mexico border, and the total number of arrests at the border has now increased by 30% for two straight months. 

To put those numbers in context, the Washington Post notes that in August, Border Patrol agents made 177,000 arrests at the Southern Border, up from 132,652 in July, and 99,539 in June.

Following the repeal of the Trump-era Title 42 rule last May, Biden held up the declining number of border apprehensions as proof of his policy’s success, but the drastic increase in arrests at the southern border make it clear that Biden must formulate a new approach, or immigration will remain a political open wound when Biden can ill afford one.

To that point, Biden finds himself locked in a neck and neck race with former President Donald Trump – who will likely win the Republican presidential nomination – with the incumbent leading by just 0.9%, per the RealClearPolitics average. Given Biden’s sagging poll numbers on immigration, Republicans – and whoever wins the party’s nomination for president – will almost certainly make the issue a centerpiece of the 2024 campaign.

In such a close race, Biden should prioritize winning over moderates and reinforcing his left flank, yet he is struggling on both fronts. 

Biden has found himself under fire from both the right and the left over his administration’s handling of the southern border. Republicans, predictably, have slammed Biden for what the political right calls his “open border” policy, however, the most notable attacks have come from within Biden’s own party. 

Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently took aim at the Biden White House, saying, “Immigration is arguably this administration’s weakest issue… it’s my belief that some of the hesitation around this has to do with a fear around just being seen as approving…or really just the Republican narratives that have surrounded immigration.”

Democratic leaders of deep-blue cities and states – such as New York City, Massachusetts, and Illinois – are also voicing their frustrations with the White House over a lack of federal assistance to deal with the influx of migrants. 

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healy recently declared a state of emergency due to the surge in migrants, Illinois Sen. Dick Durban said he asked the Biden administration for more help to deal with the ongoing crisis in May but has yet to hear back.

Further, multiple outlets have noted the “total breakdown” in the relationship between Biden and NYC Mayor Eric Adams amid the federal government’s limited support for the Big Apple, which is dealing with a migrant crisis that Adams said “will destroy New York City.” 

Adams has also ripped into Biden, accusing the president of playing politics at the expense of New York, decrying the White House’s “conscious decision that it’s better politics to let New York suffer than to actually try to fix the problem.”

Quite simply, unless Biden drastically overhauls his approach to immigration, the administration will continue to find itself under fire from both sides of the aisle and will struggle to convince voters that he should be trusted with another four years in office.

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That said, Biden will have to tread lightly, as progressives continue to lambast the White House for what they see as inhumane policies towards migrants. With virtually zero possibility that a divided Congress will pass substantial – albeit much needed – immigration reform, if Biden is to have any possibility of improving his disastrous polling numbers on immigration, and his chances in 2024, he must use the presidential bully pulpit to change voters’ perceptions.

Ultimately, this will require Biden to reiterate a commitment to strengthening border security, strictly enforcing current immigration laws, and imposing harsher penalties for repeated attempts to cross the border illegally, with continuing to push for expanded pathways to citizenship for DREAMers and reducing barriers for refugees who are credibly seeking political asylum.

To be sure, immigration has been an issue every modern president has struggled with, and Biden is no different, although it is a unique Achilles Heel for the president, who largely seems unable to decide whether he wants to placate the left-wing of his party, or if he wants to soothe concerns held by an overwhelming majority of Americans that his approach to securing our southern border is ineffective at best, or dangerous at worst.

Douglas Schoen is a political consultant.

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