On no other issue has President Biden lost the faith of the country as quickly and thoroughly as immigration, where Americans tell pollsters they not only find his strategy lacking, but they actually yearn for a return to the Trump days.
A series of polls show the public sides with security experts, border-region law enforcement and Border Patrol agents who say what’s going on at the border is a crisis, and Mr. Biden’s ditching of Trump policies fostered it.
In an Economist/YouGov poll taken in late June, just 16% sided with Mr. Biden in rejecting the “crisis” label, including just 27% of self-identified Democrats. And of those who called the situation a crisis, a strong majority saw it as an immigration, security or crime crisis, rejecting the Biden administration’s attempt to portray it as a humanitarian situation.
Most striking was a Harvard CAPS-Harris poll, also from late June, that found a majority of voters think former President Donald Trump’s policies should have been left “in place,” and the two-thirds of voters who said Mr. Biden’s executive actions have encouraged illegal immigration.
“People are basically saying they’re not with the president on immigration,” said Alfonso Aguilar, who ran the Office of Citizenship in the Bush administration and now runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “They’ve seen there’s a major shift with immigration policy with this administration and the Democratic Congress, and they don’t like what they see.”
Mr. Biden still earns decent approval marks on the economy, health care and foreign policy, and Americans give him strong numbers on handling the coronavirus pandemic.
Immigration is the exception. A Morning Consult/Politico survey late last month found 40% approval of his handling of that issue, compared to 48% disapproval.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said the Biden administration has a better story to tell about border security, but the polling shows they’re just not selling it. That’s partly their own fault, he said.
“I think the Biden administration is afraid of the left in this case, and they feel like if they use the word ‘security’ the left will equate that with Trump or previous administrations,” he said.
But Mr. Noorani said the argument is there if the Biden team wants to make it, particularly when it comes to defanging the cartels that control border traffic.
He said Mr. Trump’s policy of pushing families back across the U.S.-Mexico boundary left migrants trapped in northern Mexico where they were victimized by cartels.
Mr. Noorani said the Biden administration is trying to create a more orderly way of dealing with border jumpers that doesn’t include a flat rejection at the U.S.-Mexico boundary.
“The list of policies that are being put into motion are chipping away at the cartels and over time will stem unauthorized migration at the border. Under the Trump administration nothing like that was ever done, so the border was not secure,” Mr. Noorani said.
Looking ahead, he said, Democrats are showing some awareness that border security must be part of any attempt at a broader immigration legalization.
He pointed to the 2022 budget draft by Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Mr. Sanders included $24 billion in new border spending, with $10 billion for updating border crossings but $14 billion for infrastructure.
Whatever Mr. Biden’s stumbles at the border, it does not appear to have the fundamental dynamic of a country increasingly more open to immigration, and to leniency for those already in the country without permission.
The Economist/YouGov poll found 72% still ascribe to the sentiment that the U.S. is “a nation of immigrants,” with just 15% disagreeing. Surprisingly, the most resistant to the idea were younger adults, ages 18-29, where just 54% agreed with the sentiment.
Mariano Sana, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies public attitudes on immigration, said Americans have long shown they want to see both better border management and a solution for those in the country without authorization.
On that latter score, he said, support has ranged between 60% and 80% for years, with a Pew Research Center survey in April putting it at 68% and a Quinnipiac University poll putting it at 74% in February.
“It is possible that support for legalization dips a bit if the border is perceived as dysfunctional, but that is likely to be temporary and it is extremely unlikely that support ceases to be the position of the majority,” he said.
Polling has long shown the public wants better border security.
A Harvard-Harris poll taken in September, amid the presidential campaign, found about three-fourths of those surveyed wanted to see the border tightened and wanted to see undocumented immigrants who commit crimes deported.
In the June Harvard survey, 80% said illegal immigration is a serious issue for the country, and 64% said they want to see stricter borders.
Yet the poll also showed voters don’t know the full extent of the border chaos. The vast majority said illegal border crossings total 100,000 a month or less. In fact, in the last few months, the number has hovered between 170,000 and 180,000 unauthorized crossings. Just 7% of voters picked the right range of 150,000 to 200,000 in the Harvard survey.
Another striking feature of the Harvard poll is that when Mr. Trump’s name is taken out of the equation, Mr. Biden fares even worse.
When asked whether the president should revert to Mr. Trump’s policies, 55% agreed. But when asked whether Mr. Biden should adopt “stricter policies” — without Mr. Trump’s name attached — support leaped to 64%.
In Texas, which is bearing the brunt of the border surge, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll last month found just 27% approved of Mr. Biden’s handling of immigration and the border.
Among Hispanics people, a key demographic group whom Mr. Biden hopes to woo with his policies, his support was underwater, with 34% approval to 47% disapproval — a net negative of 13 percentage points.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has vowed to mount his own border security operation, complete with wall-building, fared somewhat better, with 46% approval on the issue overall. Among Hispanic people, he had a net negative of just 3 points on his handling of immigration.
Nationally, Mr. Biden won 38% approval from voters in a Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll last week, compared to 49% who disapproved of his handling of immigration. The rest were unsure.
Marist asked the same question in January 2018, a year into Mr. Trump’s term, and found the same 38% level of approval — but his disapproval was much higher, at 58%.