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Liberals don’t like Biden’s border plan, but it may help him where he needs it most

 Men seeking asylum are detained by border patrol after crossing the
Men seeking asylum are detained by border patrol after crossing the US/Mexico border on June 3, 2024.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
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President Biden’s move this week to close the border to most migrants seeking asylum sent an important signal about what he and his top aides view as their biggest problem in the presidential race. And it’s not opposition from his left.

That’s a critical point because a lot of news coverage gives disproportionate attention to progressives attacking Biden.

Opposition from the left gets noticed

When Biden ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020, he was the moderate candidate facing multiple candidates to his left, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. So it’s natural for people to think of the most liberal wing of the party as the locus of his opposition.

Moreover, Biden has lost ground with young people, especially Black and Latino voters. A lot of people incorrectly think of those groups as being mostly on the left. In fact, most Black and Latino voters identify as moderates, and, as the most recent Harvard Youth Poll showed, the current generation of young men, in particular, are notably less liberal than were their predecessors.

Left-wing advocates engage in high-visibility actions that attract coverage — campus demonstrations against Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza, for example, or climate activists protesting Biden’s approval of some fossil-fuel projects.

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And activists have strong incentives to say that if only Biden would embrace their issues, his situation, especially with younger voters, would improve. News stories often repeat those claims without much skepticism.

Yet, poll after poll has shown that Biden has held onto the support of the vast majority of voters who identify themselves as liberal or very liberal. It’s among those who identify as moderate that he’s suffered serious declines, and the immigration order provides further evidence that the president is willing to risk significant dissent within his party to woo back those voters.

A sharp shift in public opinion on immigration

Immigration provides a perfect example of what political scientists call the thermostatic nature of public opinion — a fancy way to say that the public often reacts against the excesses of whichever party holds the White House.

During the Trump years, the public strongly rejected his restrictive immigration policies. Trump’s separation of children from their families at the border was one of the most politically damaging actions he took during his presidency, according to a detailed polling analysis by political scientists Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch of UCLA and John Sides of Vanderbilt University.

The reaction against Trump led to a spike in support for both legal and illegal immigrants.

At this point in 2020, for example, 74% of voters said immigrants in the U.S. without proper documents should be allowed to stay, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found.

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That surge in pro-immigrant sentiment strongly colored the Democratic primary race in 2020. Calls to “abolish ICE” or decriminalize the border were common.

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Biden never embraced those slogans, but the sentiments helped shape the first year of his administration, in which he revoked several of Trump’s immigration orders, and administration officials stressed efforts to address what they referred to as the “root causes” of migration, especially from Central America.

Those moves on immigration were part of Biden’s largely successful effort to keep unity in Democratic ranks by forging policy agreements with Sanders and other leaders of the party’s left.

As border crossings soared to record levels, however, public opinion quickly began to reverse.

Today, the share of U.S. adults who favor allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. has fallen to 59%, Pew found as part of a new study of public opinion on culture-war issues the group released on Thursday.

Republican and independent voters have shifted most notably to the right on that question — immigration issues are a much higher priority for GOP voters than others. Even among Democrats, opinion has moved.

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The perception of chaos at the border has weighed down the public’s view of how Biden does his job: Only about 3 in 10 U.S. adults approve of how he’s handled immigration issues, according to YouGov polls for the Economist.

The border crisis has become a prime element of Trump’s effort to persuade voters that he, not Biden, is the candidate of stability. A poll released last month by ABC News showed Trump leading Biden 47% to 30% when voters were asked which candidate they trust more to fix the border.

Biden’s proposal

Biden’s plan aims at asylum, the legal right adopted after World War II to protect people fleeing persecution.

In theory, the process is straightforward: A person fleeing their home country can arrive at the U.S. border, present themselves to a border officer, state that they fear persecution at home and receive a hearing. If their claim for asylum is found credible, they can stay legally in the U.S. If not, they can be deported.

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In practice, the system has been overwhelmed by huge numbers.

In 2006, immigration courts had a pending caseload of roughly 170,000 asylum cases, according to administration figures. By last year, that number had swelled to almost 2.5 million. The caseload more than doubled during Trump’s four years in office and has doubled again so far during Biden’s tenure.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service now has a backlog of more than a million asylum cases. The wait for a hearing lasts years.

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The government has nowhere near the ability to detain even a small fraction of the migrants claiming asylum, so most are released and told to show up in court when their hearing date comes.

Not surprisingly, migrants have taken advantage of the situation. Smugglers tell people that if they claim asylum, they’ll be able to enter the U.S. and remain for at least a couple of years, perhaps longer, while their cases wend through the system.

Last fall, Biden split with the left by backing a bipartisan immigration bill in the Senate that would have significantly curtailed asylum rights. Biden supported it despite impassioned opposition from immigrant advocates, including California Sen. Alex Padilla.

In addition to limiting asylum applications, the Senate bill would have added millions of dollars to hire additional border patrol officers, immigration judges and hearing officers in an effort to resolve the backlog and create a system in which asylum claims could be adjudicated swiftly.

The bill ultimately failed after Trump told Republicans to oppose it.

The executive proclamation Biden issued this week mimicked some of that bill’s enforcement provisions but without the additional financial resources, which can only be provided by Congress.

“This action will help us gain control of our border, restore order into the process,” Biden said during a news conference Tuesday. The goal, he said, is to shut off new entries until the “number of people trying to enter legally is reduced to a level that our system can effectively manage.”

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Once again, Padilla was outspoken in his opposition, calling Biden’s plan ineffective and saying it “undermined American values and abandoned our nation’s obligations to provide people fleeing persecution, violence and authoritarianism with an opportunity to seek refuge in the U.S.”

Padilla, however, isn’t going to vote for Trump, and neither will the vast majority of voters who agree with him. The downside risk for the president is limited.

How much upside his move has — either substantively or politically — remains to be seen. Biden’s order faces legal challenges from the ACLU and other immigrant advocacy groups. If it survives court scrutiny, it may not have the impact Biden hopes. And even if it does, some Democratic strategists are skeptical that many voters will give Biden credit.

But, at minimum, the move gives the administration something to point to, a plan of action to deal with a problem that ranks high on the agenda for many voters, especially in important swing states like Arizona and Nevada.

The best scenario for the president is that the order will give his campaign an opening to turn the debate to which plan voters prefer — Biden’s or Trump’s.

Trump’s plan, which he has repeatedly touted, centers on a massive effort to deport the more than 10 million immigrants currently in the U.S. without legal authorization. That idea has gained traction among Republicans — more than 6 in 10 say they support a “national effort to deport” the undocumented, Pew found.

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Among the wider public, however, Trump’s idea gets an emphatic thumbs down — 63%-37%. The more Biden can turn the immigration debate to focus on that, the better off he will be. If it works, angering advocates on the left will have been a small price to pay.

What else you should be reading

Poll of the week: A big new survey from Pew Research examines where the public stands on the culture-war issues that have split the country.

The L.A. Times special: Americans approve of LGBTQ+ people living as they wish, but their support drops for trans people, a new L.A. Times poll shows. The poll is part of a broader series on America’s Queerest Century.

The week’s must-read: Voters believe Trump would handle the economy better than Biden. Economists think differently. Ron Brownstein examines the debate over whether Trump’s proposals would supercharge inflation.


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