In a bid to weaken Donald Trump’s domination of the immigration crisis going into the 2024 election, President Biden has reversed his position and adopted a high-risk strategy.
Biden is seeking enactment of border legislation that “would give me, as president, a new emergency authority to shut down the border when it becomes overwhelmed.”
On Monday, the Times described Biden’s rationale in “How the Border Crisis Shattered Biden’s Immigration Hopes”:
The number of people crossing into the United States has reached record levels, more than double than in the Trump years. The asylum system is still all but broken.
On Friday, in a dramatic turnaround from those early days, the president implored Congress to grant him the power to shut down the border so he could contain one of the largest surges of uncontrolled immigration in American history.
Trump, acutely aware of the critical importance of immigration to his campaign, is determined to block Biden’s border security proposal, now under negotiation in the Senate. Trump, of course, wants to make sure that the “crisis at the border” remains foremost in the minds of voters through Election Day.
“A Border Deal now would be another Gift to the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump declared in a post on Jan. 25 on Truth Social. “They need it politically, but don’t care about our Border.”
The prize in this struggle is the 2024 presidency and all the power that goes with it.
I asked political strategists and American and European scholars to evaluate the viability of Biden’s immigration initiative and received a wide range of responses.
Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has often argued that Democrats have moved too far to the cultural left, questioned the viability of Biden’s immigration strategy in an email:
It’s a steep political hill Biden has to climb on this issue. His approval rating on ‘handling the immigration situation at the U.S.-Mexico border’ is now 18 percent. Eighteen percent! That’s really, really bad and the lowest presidential approval on the issue ABC News has measured since 2004. In the latest Wall Street Journal poll, Trump is preferred over Biden by 30 points, his greatest lead on any issue.
Illuminating detail, Teixeira continued,
comes from a December survey conducted by the Blueprint group. Between Trump and Biden, who are voters most likely to think is close to their views on immigration? It’s Trump by a country mile: 44 percent of voters say Trump is close to their position, compared to a mere 25 percent who say Biden is close to their position. Even Hispanic voters are more likely to say Trump is closer to their views on immigration than to say Biden is.
Frankly, Teixeira continued,
It’s a bit late in the day to finally be moving on this issue and only under duress from the Republicans. The border debacle has been unfolding throughout Biden’s term and the political damage has been accumulating. A big part of the problem is that there are a lot of Democrats who didn’t — and don’t — really want to do much about border security.
Teixeira suggested that Biden may not have the stomach to turn a “red meat” conservative stance on immigration into a wedge issue:
I don’t think Biden is really committed to being a different kind of Democrat, just a somewhat more palatable one. And I don’t think he really wants to go after some specific person or group to forcefully dissociate himself from “weak on border security” views in and around the Democratic Party. That limits the salience of his repositioning both in the general political discourse and to voters’ perceptions of him and his party.
“All this said, it’s still worth striking a tougher stance on border security,” Teixeira wrote. “It’s the beginning of a move in the right direction and could help Biden modestly.”
Would Biden “lose more support on the progressive left than he would gain in the center?” Teixeira asked. His answer: “My view is that, on this issue as on so many others, the progressive left is a paper tiger.”
“The net for the Democrats,” he concluded, “is likely to be strongly positive.”
Others find a different range of reasons to be skeptical of the effectiveness of Biden’s about face on immigration.
William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings, voiced concern about Biden’s strategy, writing by email:
Biden’s shift on immigration will make a political difference to the situation on the ground well before the election only if his new policies change the day. In the last year of the Trump administration, encounters with illegal migrants at the southern border numbered less than 500 thousand. During the third year of the Biden administration, the total rose to 2.5 million, and the dispersal of these migrants throughout the country has produced fiscal and housing crises in large cities controlled by Democrats.
If he intends to reduce this flow, Galston continued,
Biden will have to undertake tough measures that won’t be easy to distinguish from Trump’s. The Democrats who understand the political stakes will probably go along with this, while those who see this issue through humanitarian or ideological lenses will balk. If he proceeds down this path, Biden will have to hope that gains among swing voters exceed the losses in his base.
Trump and the Republicans, in Galston’s view, “will pay a price if they are seen as being driven by politics rather than the desire to address a really difficult problem,” but Biden faces a big hurdle in his bid to take command of the immigration issue:
The administration has waited so long to act that it faces a credibility problem that will only get worse if it flinches and settles for half-measures whose effects are incremental at best. Turning this issue around will take determination — and a willingness to endure criticism from fellow Democrats that hasn’t been the administration’s long suit thus far.
Joel Kotkin, of Chapman University and the Houston-based Urban Reform Institute, argued that adopting a tougher immigration stance is a plus for Biden that comes with little cost: “The progressives, faced with the odious Trump, will fall into line, except on the margins. The open border is not welcomed by most people.”
It’s hard to see, Kotkin continued,
how either working-class Latinos or African Americans welcome their communities being inundated by people who have entered illegally and about whom we know nothing. Protests in New York and Chicago by working class people should not be ignored. This year, if I were Biden, I would be more worried about them than far-left foundations or cheap labor lobbyists who might object.
Overall, Kotkin contended, “The political rewards of standing up on the border are far greater than backing the current chaos. Everywhere in Europe support for stricter immigration is moving from the right to the center and even the left, particularly in the ‘enlightened’ North.”
I asked Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke and an expert in political parties both here and in Europe, about the Biden immigration strategy, and he emailed back a detailed examination of the complexities of the politics of immigration.
“What really politicizes immigration,” Kitschelt wrote, “is the interaction of structural threat to the established life chances of a resident native population with rates and levels of immigration/immigrants, even if immigration is not a powerful feature in the local residential experience.”
In other words, in communities suffering economic decline and growing isolation, a relatively small influx of immigrants can propel voters to the right.
As a result, “the strongest feelings against immigrants may be voiced in areas where the actual immigration rate is not high, but structural social decline interacts with the perception of immigration in the broader national unit: Think of the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Saxony, Germany, or in West Virginia, both places with few immigrants.”
As Western countries experience very high immigration rates, Kitschelt wrote,
The issue increasingly converts from a primarily sociocultural question of tolerance to difference and diversity to a socio-economic question of the allocation of scarce resources: Municipal and even national social care and protection budgets must be expanded, and growing increments accrue to caring for the immigrant population. Immigration becomes increasingly a question of distributive conflict.
The obstacle Biden faces in trying to gain support by shifting to the right on immigration, according to Kitschelt, is that
The Democratic Party does not have the credibility and reputation for social protection and economic redistribution in the United States. It is therefore less likely that a sharp swing on immigration in the run-up to a presidential election will dramatically increase the support of a Democratic presidential candidate from people who are concerned by immigration, and particularly not from those for whom immigration is a major concern while they are also worried about their future social status decline and the precarity of their economic well-being.
Despite the slim chance of success, Kitschelt made the case that
under current conditions of ascending chances of Trump winning the presidential election in November, Democrats have little choice but to backpedal from uncompromising pro-immigration stances.
Whether or not this change happens in the nick of time to salvage the November election, however, is highly uncertain, given the weak social protectionist reputation of the party and the imperatives of not letting immigration progressives defect into electoral abstention in November.
Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, replying by email to my inquiry concerning the current politics of immigration, argued that the Republican Party has increased the odds that the Biden strategy will work.
“I believe the Republicans may have given the Biden campaign the opportunity to turn this issue into a real plus,” Goeas wrote, referring to the politicized reasoning Republicans are using to reject the legislation under consideration in the Senate.
If immigration becomes a less cutting issue, he continued, Republicans with be left “with little of an issue-dominated agenda. That is dangerous territory for Trump with all those Republicans who say they like his policies but hate his persona! The emperor will truly have no clothes!”
Political scientists in Europe are split on the effectiveness of center-left parties embracing more restrictive immigration policies, in what political scientists call an accommodation strategy — that is, the adoption of policies traditionally associated with partisan and ideological adversaries in a bid to win support from opposition voters.
Frederik Georg Hjorth of the University of Copenhagen wrote by email that he and Martin Vinaes Larsen, a political scientist at Aarhus University, found in their paper, “When Does Accommodation Work? Electoral Effects of Mainstream Left Position Taking on Immigration,” that in Denmark “a more restrictionist stance on immigration by the Social Democrats successfully attracted former radical right and other anti-immigration voters.”
In the case of the 2019 Danish election, “pro-immigration voters repelled by this move can defect from the Social Democrats to other left-wing parties that hold seats in parliament and will therefore still underpin a left-wing government.”
Hjorth pointed out that in the American system “a Biden accommodation strategy carries the risks that pro-immigration Democrats will either abstain or defect to third parties, both of which detract from the coalition Democrats need to win in November. These risks make accommodation as a strategy for Joe Biden less favorable, and the electoral calculus overall more complex.”
Despite that risk, Hjorth argued that “if Trump is the Republican nominee, he will likely mobilize large numbers of Democratic voters — voters who will ‘hold their noses’ and vote for Biden. This will, all else equal, give Biden more leeway for an accommodation strategy.”
Kristian Kongshoj, a political scientist at Denmark’s Aalborg University, shares the view that accommodation strategies deployed by the center-left can be effective. But Kongshoj stressed in his email that the center-left Social Democratic Party in Denmark “would never have regained support from many rural, blue-collar, etc. voters had it not been for this reorientation of immigration policy toward especially restricting asylum and family reunification, speeding up repatriation toward home countries, current attempts at externalizing asylum processing to other countries, etc.”
It took more than immigration to win over these voters, in Kongshoj’s view:
It was certainly also very important that the Social Democrats gained credibility 2015-2019 on welfare politics — lower retirement age for blue-collar workers, a promise to fund/finance welfare for future needs and demographic change, etc. The S.D.P. had really lost a lot of trust and credibility here in the years previously.
Kongshoj is less optimistic than Hjorth on the political value, for Democrats in America, of adopting an immigration accommodation strategy: “In the United States, the problem is of course that in a polarized context with low-to-moderate turnout, it is just as important — or perhaps even more important — to feed your core support base compared to swaying ‘moderates’ and undecideds.”
A separate paper, “Economic Risk within the Household and Voting for the Radical Right” by Tarik Abou-Chadi and Thomas Kurer, political scientists at Oxford and the University of Zurich, provides strong evidence of the crucial importance of a credible welfare policy for a center-left party taking more conservative stands on immigration to win back working class voters.
Abou-Chadi and Kurer find, for example, that “occupational unemployment risk is systematically related to supporting radical-right parties” and that “one high-risk individual per household is sufficient to significantly increase the probability of supporting the radical right among all household members.”
Put another way, winning over those voters who have shifted to right-wing populist parties requires that the center-left guarantee a strong safety net for those who lose their jobs.
There is no consensus among European scholars on the effectiveness of acceding to the right on immigration by mainstream left parties.
In “Does Accommodation Work? Mainstream Party Strategies and the success of Radical Right Parties,” Werner Krause and Denis Cohen, political scientists at Humboldt University in Berlin and the University of Mannheim, along with Abou-Chadi, argue that making concessions to the right is a losing proposition:
We do not find any evidence that accommodative strategies reduce radical right support. If anything, our results suggest that they lead to more voters defecting to the radical right” and “the findings of our article open up a puzzle. While it is well-documented that mainstream parties react to radical right success by shifting toward their policy position, these strategies do not seem to pay off electorally.
In their October 2023 paper, “How to Counter Exclusionary Far Right Politics with a Progressive Inclusionary Agenda on Equality,” Daphne Halikiopoulou and Tim Vlandas, political scientists at the University of Reading and Oxford, argue that: “Co-opting the policy agendas of far-right parties is not a winning strategy for Social Democrats and trade unions because in most cases accommodation will probably alienate a large proportion of their traditional left-wing supporters.”
The difficulties that center-left parties face, in the view of Halikiopoulou and Vlandas, is less the challenge from the right on issues like immigration than it is a failure to remain true to welfare and redistribution policies:
Left-wing governments and trade unions should focus on addressing economic grievances by reducing labor market insecurity, promoting economic growth and ensuring effective welfare protection. They should reclaim ownership of issues they are associated with, most notably, equality. Successful strategies galvanize the center-left’s core supporter base and mobilize beyond it by addressing the economic grievances that concern large parts of the electorate.
Looking at the immigration and border issue from a purely political vantage point, Biden has much more to gain from taking a tough conservative stance than he stands to lose.
The public clearly wants the government to take steps to control the border. If Biden does nothing, Trump will retain his advantage on immigration, which consistently ranks among the top three voter concerns in polls. And most progressive voters understand, deep down, that if they cast a ballot for a third-party candidate or abstain from voting at all, they are in practice supporting Trump.
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