The issue is one of the first that puts Biden and his administration between a rock and a hard place. It’s not clear looking at the data how to politically deal with the issue.
For one thing, a flow of illegal immigration across the border divides the Democratic base.
Plenty of Democrats would like to essentially decriminalize crossing the border illegally. This was the stance that Vice President Kamala Harris took during her bid for the presidency in the 2020 election cycle. NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist polling in late 2019 showed that 51% of Democrats thought such a position was a good idea. This was especially true of the progressive base, among whom 61% thought it was a good idea.
Biden was one of the Democrats during the primary season not to endorse decriminalizing border crossings. He had to have known that few people outside the Democratic base wanted to do so. Only 42% of moderate Democrats did, and a mere 28% of registered voters overall believed decriminalizing border crossings is a good idea. A very large 65% believed decriminalizing border crossing was a bad idea.
So if voters don’t want a decriminalized border, what do they want? It’s not clear. A wall along the US-Mexico border, for instance, was pushed by former President Donald Trump. It proved to be unpopular with the public and certainly with the Democratic base.
Democrats have responded in another way: pushing immigration legislation of another sort that unites them. Specifically, House Democrats passed a bill that seeks to find a path to citizenship for many immigrants who are here illegally. Polling shows that most Americans are in favor of a path to citizenship for most people who are in the country illegally, but its chances in the Senate don’t look great at the current moment because of GOP opposition.
Of course, there’s a major difference in the minds of the voters for immigrants who are newly coming over the border illegally and those who have been in the country for a substantial period of time. The Democratic legislation doesn’t really solve the current issues at the border.
Republicans, recognizing that fact, have opposed such bills. They’re hoping to keep the issue of immigration in the news longer because a lot of the attention is on the current border situation.
Moreover, Republicans understand their base tends to be far more fired up about immigration than the Democrats are. Last year, Trump’s voters were 15 points more likely to say that immigration was very important to their vote than Biden’s voters in Pew Research Center polling.
The last time Republicans were trying to take back the House in a midterm election (2010), voters who selected immigration as one of their top issues were more than twice as likely to say they were voting Republican.
Perhaps the biggest issue Democrats face at this particular point is that they lack Trump in the White House. Trump was someone Democrats and the public at-large could unify against on immigration. The vast majority of both disapproved of his job performance on immigration and his signature border wall.
It was easy to point out children being crowded into migrant facilities and place the blame on Trump.
Now, however, Democrats are the ones in control.
Biden so far hasn’t paid a price in his overall approval ratings, but it’s not difficult to see how it could happen.
Immigration has been one of Biden’s weakest points. Biden rated poorest on immigration in a CNN/SSRS poll from earlier this month. Among all adults, his approval clocked in at a mere 43% compared to a disapproval rating of 49%. A Reuters/Ipsos poll similarly had his approval rating on immigration at 41%. With registered voters, CNN’s poll put Biden at a 41% approval rating and a 53% disapproval rating.
Biden’s overall approval ratings are no doubt being propped up by voters largely approving of how he has handled the coronavirus pandemic.
What remains to be seen is what happens when the pandemic is less of a concern to voters.
Other issues such as immigration will become more important as the midterms approach and more and more Americans get vaccinated — and that may bode poorly for Biden and the Democratic Party.