Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

From the Center

After months of speculation, President Biden took an immense ideological leap last week when he issued an executive order that barred most migrants from receiving asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. For almost a year, Biden and his advisors have been launching a series of trial balloons designed to gauge public and political reaction to more restrictive border security measures. Large majorities of swing voters have consistently supported such steps, but the Democratic Party base has been vocally opposed. Biden, who needs those young voters and other progressives to turn out for him, has been frozen in place.

Until last week. Biden’s announcement was a long-awaited move to the political center, designed to address his pronounced weakness on immigration policy in the eyes of American voters. He had included border enhancements as part of his Ukraine funding proposal last year, only to be rejected by congressional Republicans at the behest of former President Donald Trump. Since then, he has frequently hinted about taking similarly aggressive steps unilaterally. Once the June 2 elections in Mexico were past, he finally took his opportunity.

Voter opinion is decidedly in favor of stronger steps to secure the border, and Biden’s decision to further inhibit asylum speakers is extremely popular. While it will not erase Trump’s large advantage on immigration policy, it may offer some reassurance to undecided voters seeking some assurance that Biden understands the severity of the current crisis. But although liberal critics assailed the president for moving rightward on an issue of core importance to them, it appears that Biden is not simply trying to out-Trump his predecessor.

Polling shows that at the same time that voters want to see a border crackdown, many Americans also support protections for many undocumented immigrants already in this country. A majority of the electorate wants to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows immigrants who came to this country as young children without documentation, and a plurality support a pathway to citizenship for law-abiding Dreamers. Large numbers of voters also support proposals to protect undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens from deportation, a step that Biden appears ready to take as early as this week. Even when he announced the border restrictions, Biden seemed to be sending a signal to immigrant advocates that the asylum crackdown was only part of his plan going forward.

“For those who say the steps I’ve taken are too strict, I say to you that — be patient,” Biden said. It won’t be surprising if the president continues to move in this direction with additional hospitable proposals.

This week marks the 12-year anniversary of President Obama’s creation of the DACA program. It’s a mark of how much public opinion in this area has shifted that a vulnerable president that year went in precisely the opposite direction to address voter concerns on immigration than Biden did last week. But the emergence of Trump in the political landscape and the marked increase in cross-border migration in recent years have created a much different and more difficult landscape for Biden. His new asylum policy is the most stringent action that a Democratic president has ever taken on immigration matters, and it will still be considered insufficient by many Americans, but that is a very nuanced bit of political positioning at a time when voters tend to prefer absolutes rather than shades of gray.

Biden will never be as tough on immigration – or immigrants – as Trump. But he does recognize the distinction that many voters draw between migrants who have not yet arrived in the country and those who are already here. His balancing act will reflect this distinction, taking a stronger stance at the border while maintaining a more welcoming approach for some undocumented immigrants. His hope will be to attract swing voters with the former and reassure his base with the latter.

Biden can’t win an election that centers on immigration, but he can try to keep the issue from hurting him too much. Trump walks a similarly uncomfortable path on abortion policy: his proposal to let the states decide how to handle the abortion issue is his version of Biden’s straddle in the immigration debate. This election may ultimately turn on which candidate can disguise their biggest weakness with a more plausible two-step.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters