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Biden needs to please Democrats, not Republicans, on immigration

Biden's poll numbers on immigration are terrible — especially with his own party.

The latest polling for President Joe Biden is, in a word, bad. And nowhere is he performing worse with members of his own party than on immigration.

Quinnipiac University’s most recent survey has Democrats backing Biden on most immigration-related matters by only the slimmest of margins — if that. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed generally approve of the administration’s treatment of undocumented immigrants. The same number approve of Biden’s handling of immigration overall. When asked whether the Biden team has been too aggressive or too lax or whether it’s acting appropriately on deportations, 49 percent of Democrats chose option three.

This balancing act the White House is attempting was never sustainable.

Meanwhile, only 22 percent of independents approve of Biden’s immigration policies broadly, and just 3 (yes, 3!) percent of Republicans agree.

These numbers tell me two things: 1) Biden’s never going to win over Republican voters on immigration, not with the current state of the party, and 2) Trying to give himself cover politically from GOP attacks is failing miserably. This balancing act the White House is attempting was never sustainable.

Since Biden took office, Republicans have been successfully using immigration, their most politically salient policy holdover from the Trump era, as a wedge issue. Their narrative since January has been that Biden is weak on border security, a framing that, as I explained in March, locks Democrats into a no-win scenario:

That's why hammering home enforcement is such a win — it creates space for a self-perpetuating problem that only more enforcement can solve. There is no way to fully secure the border so nobody gets through; demanding that set an impossible goal that the Democrats tried to meet for years. And then, when their own policies fail, they say it's because we just didn't try hard enough.

Biden’s standing among GOP and independent voters on immigration is the result of that messaging blitz. And, ironically, most of the things Republicans are calling for are things the administration is already doing, much to the chagrin of many Democrats.

Nine Republican governors announced a “border security plan” Wednesday that included, among other things, reinstating the so-called Remain in Mexico policy, which forces migrants to wait for asylum hearings on the southern side of the U.S. border, and enforcing the Title 42 public health ban on asylum-seekers’ crossing into the U.S. Federal courts have already forced the resumption of “Remain in Mexico,” and the administration has been in court fighting activists to keep Title 42 in place.

And just last week, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., sent a letter urging Biden “to tell the massive migrant caravan approaching our border, ‘You must turn around.’” As though that hasn’t already been what Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have been doing constantly since taking office.

The trap that Biden is in is one that his former boss, President Barack Obama, found himself in well over a decade ago when he was trying to pass needed immigrations reforms. Unfortunately, even though everyone knows America’s immigration laws are a chaotic mess, they’re still the law of the land. So until Congress can get its act together and pass something — a prospect that appears slimmer by the moment — this is the hand Biden has been dealt.

The fastest, simplest step that Biden could take is the repeal of Title 42.

That having been said, there are still areas where changes are desperately needed, changes that center the humanity of the people seeking a home in America — and would stanch the bleeding with Democrats politically.

The fastest, simplest step Biden could take is the repeal of Title 42. When the Trump administration put it in place at the start of the pandemic, it felt like just one more layer in the former president’s attempts to cut off legal immigration for nonwhites altogether. Now activists are furious that it is still being used to deny immigrants the ability to seek asylum, which is their right under international law. On Tuesday, senior State Department legal adviser Harold Koh resigned over it, shaming the administration in an internal memo for keeping such an “inhumane” and “illegal” policy in place.

Title 42 is also the source of Biden’s biggest problem with Democrats: the forced deportation of thousands of Haitian migrants from a camp in Texas back to Haiti in recent weeks. When polled by Quinnipiac’s questioners, Democrats disapproved of the mass expulsion by a 2-to-1 ratio: 61 percent to 30 percent.

Biden can also have Mayorkas try again to repeal “Remain in Mexico” in a process that mutes the judiciary’s complaints. At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security needs to be shifting as many resources as possible to processing the asylum cases that have been left waiting for years and end the bottleneck the pandemic has exacerbated.

The president’s team can also be more vocal about its efforts to cut down the massive backlog of immigration cases the Trump administration left behind. And it can appoint immigration judges who include immigration activists and defense attorneys among their ranks.

And, while it may be controversial, Biden and his Cabinet need to rein in the tough talk on immigration. Graham and Blackburn and Fox News may want Biden to keep repeating that the border is closed — but it’s impressing nobody. It’s persuading exactly zero migrants to stay away from the southern border. And it’s hurting him politically with almost no upside. What we need to hear now is more about when the border will be ready for migrants again and a plan for what that will look like.

These actions may not win over independents. They definitely won’t win over Republicans. If that’s the case, though, then why do anything except the right thing by the men, women and children seeking better lives? There is nowhere to hide in the center on immigration. The sooner the White House gets this, the more people Biden can help during his time in office — whether the GOP likes it or not.