70 Percent (!) Disapprove of Biden’s Handling of Immigration in Latest CBS News Poll

Why Americans are concerned about the border — and what they think should be done with migrants

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 9, 2024

CBS News has released the results of its latest poll, and it shows that President Biden’s overall approval levels on immigration have fallen 12 points since May to their lowest level ever, signaling a crisis for an incumbent seeking reelection on an issue that’s increasingly important to the electorate. Not that voters are happy with congressional Republicans when it comes to the border, either.

That poll was conducted for CBS News by survey outfit YouGov and involved 2,158 U.S. adults. The margin of error was +/- 2.8 points — which could make some, but not a lot of, difference, as you’ll see.

Biden Approval Rating Generally. The bad news starts early for the president in this poll, with 59 percent of respondents disapproving the job that he is doing as president (43 percent “strongly”) compared with just 41 percent who approve (just 15 percent strongly approving).

Much of that disapproval likely stems from the dour mood of the respondents, two-thirds of whom feel that things in America are going badly (including about a third, 34 percent, of whom say things are going “very badly”). Just 34 percent feel that things are going well in the Republic, with only 7 percent stating that things are going “very well”.

Again, the margin of error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, so the actual mood could really be a lot darker than these results reveal, but not a whole light sunnier.

Similarly, just 35 percent of those polled rate the condition of the economy today as “fairly good” (26 percent) or “very good” (9 percent). By contrast, 59 percent rate the economy as “fairly bad” (29 percent) or “very bad” (30 percent).

Biden Approval on Immigration and the Border. Plainly, an electorate sour on the country’s direction and their own economic wellbeing are warning signs for an incumbent, but I haven’t yet mentioned Biden’s worst issues by far: “immigration and the border”.

In analyzing earlier polling on Biden’s performance, I distinguished between the two. “Immigration” can mean vastly different things to different people, with some wanting more and others less. The two issues appear to have merged in the nation’s collective mind, thanks to the disaster that Biden has birthed at the Southwest border.

Respondents were asked whether they approved or disapproved of Biden’s handling of four different subject areas: “the economy”; “inflation”; “the situation with Russia and Ukraine”; and “immigration”.

Biden is 28 points in the red on the economy (36 percent approve vs. 64 percent disapprove), 34 percent down on inflation (33 percent approve and 67 percent disapprove), and 18 points behind on the conflict between Putin and Zelenskyy (41 percent approve compared to 59 percent who disapprove).

Then, there’s immigration, a subject in which Biden is down by 40 points, with 30 percent of respondents approving of his handling of the issue compared to 70 percent who disapprove.

That’s a four-point swing in the wrong direction for Biden on this issue since CBS News and YouGov last asked about it in November, but more saliently a 12-point tumble for Biden’s overall immigration performance since their May poll (when 36 percent approved of the job Biden was doing at the border compared to 64 percent who disapproved), conducted days after the end of Title 42.

So why do I think that there isn’t a cohort of the electorate pining for higher immigration levels that Biden is failing to deliver? Because in a separate question, respondents were asked: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Joe Biden is handling matters concerning the U.S.-Mexico border?”

The results were nearly identical, with 68 percent of those polled disapproving of the job that Biden is doing at the Southwest border, compared to 32 percent who approved.

Again, the margin of error means that these numbers could go 2.8 points in either direction, so the 36-point hole that Biden has dug at the U.S.-Mexico line could well be closer to 39 points. Even if Biden were just 33 points down on his handling of the border, it would still be a warning sign — but an error in the other direction is more likely, given the “immigration” response.

“The Most Important Problem Facing the Country Today”. There are other indications that this is the case. YouGov asked respondents: “Which of these [nine issues] do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” I won’t list them all, but they include such topics as “the state of democracy”, “health care”, and the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.

“Inflation” came out on top, the biggest important problem as identified by respondents at 29 percent. But “immigration and the border” was a near-second finisher, the most important problem facing the United States in the minds of Americans at 21 percent.

In case you are wondering, “the state of democracy” finished in the third slot, at 18 percent. That truly is an issue that can mean different things to different voters. Aside from “gun violence”, at 10 percent, the rest polled in the single digits.

Separately, respondents were asked what sort of policy the president should be following at the Southwest border.

In response, 63 percent of those polled stated the administration should be “tougher on immigrants trying to cross the border”, 16 percent wanted Biden to take it easier on those illegal entrants, and 21 percent picked the “Goldilocks” answer and said that the president was dealing with those illegal aliens the way that he should be.

Those responses are bad for the president, but I would take them with a grain of salt, because they are likely worse than they appear. I say that because respondents were separately asked: “Do you think the current situation with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border is a crisis; a very serious problem but not a crisis; a somewhat serious problem; or not much of a problem?”

The “crisis” crowd came out on top, at 45 percent, followed by those who deemed it a serious problem (30 percent), “a somewhat serious problem” (18 percent), and “not much of a problem” (7 percent).

Why are Americans Concerned About the Border? That raises the question of why those 93 percent of respondents who deemed the border to be a crisis or a problem (serious or otherwise) believed that to be the case. Fortunately, YouGov asked that question, and the answers were enlightening, to say the least.

Among these respondents, 86 percent were concerned about the strains migrants place on our national resources and our ability to handle more people; 81 percent were anxious about the national security implications of the migrant surge; 66 percent were concerned about the effects on migrants themselves; 62 percent had issues with how the state of the border reflects our values and principles; and 52 percent were worried about “changes to U.S. culture and people”.

You may personally disagree with or reject that last factor (and most in the media do), given it’s the most subjective response, but that doesn’t change the way more than half of respondents view the impact those migrants will have.

The remaining issues are much more objective, and each is supported by solid facts. All legal immigrants (and nonimmigrants) are screened to ensure that they don’t pose a national security risk, but the vetting of released migrants for terrorist or espionage intent is inadequate at best (and criminally reckless, at worst).

And when it comes to our nation’s ability to provide for those migrants, one need look no further than the impacts the migrant surge is having on New York City. It’s the world’s economic capital, but still it’s struggling to handle the fiscal impacts of caring for the 130,000 released Southwest border migrants who have headed to the Big Apple.

Few if any in the media these days have the temerity to examine the dangers migrants face on their illicit journeys to America, but in 2017, Doctors Without Borders reported that more than two-third of the migrants who make that journey are victims of violence on the way, and that nearly one-third of female migrants are subject to sexual assault.

Smugglers, cartels, and corrupt cops haven’t become better people in the interim, but that doesn’t even account for the trauma that a bipartisan federal panel convened to review the reasons for and impact of illegal family entries determined every child in those families suffers during the trek, when it examined the issue in 2019.

Finally, more than a few observers have examined the connections between the administration’s border policies and the “defund the police” movement, the latter a left-wing “progressive” concept President Biden has long attempted to distance himself from due to its unpopularity.

There are a lot of similarities between the impacts of defunding the police on crime and what Biden’s migrant release policies have had on the chaos occurring at the Southwest border. Both countenance a degree of lawlessness that the American people — by and large — neither like nor support.

As the late Barbara Jordan — civil rights icon and President Clinton’s appointee as chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform — explained in February 1995:

To make sense about the national interest in immigration, it is necessary to make distinctions between those who obey the law, and those who violate it. Therefore, we disagree, also, with those who label our efforts to control illegal immigration as somehow inherently anti-immigrant. Unlawful immigration is unacceptable.

The concept of unlawful immigration being “unacceptable” is plainly anathema to the president and his immigration advisors, but, as the CBS News poll reveals, it’s the position of the vast majority of Americans.

What Should Be Done with the Migrants? YouGov also asked about what should be done with the migrants apprehended at the Southwest border, and again the responses tell quite the tale.

A majority, 57 percent, disapproved of efforts by southern and border states to send released migrants to northern cities and states, while 43 percent approved of such schemes. There may be some NIMBYism involved there on the part of respondents in northern cities and states who don’t want those migrants to become their problem.

Unfortunately, the responses are not broken down by region, but there is support for that conclusion elsewhere in the poll. A similar majority, 55 percent of those polled, oppose any “plan to try to find temporary housing and social services for migrants in the city or town where” they live.

So, what do those polled think the federal government should be doing with migrants who enter illegally and seek asylum?

A plurality of respondents, 44 percent, believe that illegal migrants seeking asylum should be forced to leave the United States and wait for a decision on whether they can come legally or not (basically the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which Biden ended), while 13 percent take a harder line and say those migrants should leave the country “without a court hearing” and with “no chance to return or stay illegally”.

Just 43 percent of those polled said those migrants should stay here “while waiting for a court hearing to decide if they can stay legally or not”. Curiously, however, there was no discussion in that poll as to whether those aliens should be detained (which the law requires) while awaiting the outcome of their asylum hearings or released.

Will Migrants Make the United States Better or Worse in the Long Run? Next, YouGov asked respondents about the overall impacts those Southwest border migrants will have on the United States in the “long run”.

A plurality, 48 percent, said that those migrants will make the country worse at the end of the day, compared to fewer than a quarter (22 percent) who believe they’ll make the country better, and 30 percent who believe those migrants won’t have much of an impact “one way or the other”.

There are two different ways to view those responses. On the one hand, you could conclude that a majority of Americans think that — at a minimum — migrants won’t have any negative impact on the future of the United States.

On the other hand, you could find that nearly half of Americans are afraid that the illegal migration we are seeing now will have deleterious long-term consequences for the country.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare described the afterlife as “the undiscovered country”, while Star Trek VI (which was heavy on Shakespearean quotes) used the phrase to mean the future.

In my best assessment of these polling results overall, I conclude there are a large number of Americans who are concerned that the current wave of largely unfettered immigration will have unpredictable results on our country, particularly given our ability to assimilate such a large number of newcomers.

In a 1995 op-ed in the New York Times, Jordan referred to the process by which our country has been able to unite “immigrants and their descendants around a commitment to democratic ideals and constitutional principles” in the past as “Americanization”, a concept she explained this way:

Americanization means becoming a part of the polity — becoming one of us. But that does not mean conformity. We are more than a melting pot; we are a kaleidoscope, where every turn of history refracts new light on the old promise.

Immigration imposes mutual obligations. Those who choose to come here must embrace the common core of American civic culture. We must assist them in learning our common language: American English.

One could reasonably ask whether an individual whose first act in this country is to break our laws can be expected to thereafter embrace the nation’s “democratic ideals”, “constitutional principles”, and “civic culture”. Nor is it extreme to ponder whether our nation can keep up its end of the “Americanization” bargain when you’re talking about two to three million-plus such newcomers in just the past two years.

Republicans Need to Act. Finally, YouGov asked respondents: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Republicans in Congress are handling matters concerning the U.S.-Mexico border?” In response, a solid majority — 65 percent — disapproved of the results that congressional GOP members have delivered, while just 35 percent approved.

Again, there are a couple of different ways to interpret those responses, but the best take is that the American electorate — which gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives in January 2023 — isn’t happy that they haven’t done anything to bring the border under control.

In their defense, the House GOP conference did pass H.R. 2, the “Secure the Border Act of 2023”, on a largely party-line vote (two Republicans joined every Democrat in voting against it). H.R. 2 is likely the most significant border reform bill ever, but it has languished in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The American people, however, plainly want more than a bill heading nowhere fast, and are dissatisfied with having to wait indefinitely for the migrant flow at the Southwest border to end. Biden won’t do it, so the GOP congressional conference needs to act, and to use every tool at their disposal to make it happen.

The latest CBS News poll shows deep dissatisfaction among the American people about what’s happening at the Southwest border, as well as deep-seated concerns about the long-term impacts of the ongoing migrant surge. Both the White House and congressional Republicans should quickly take a look at the results and heed their warnings — the 2024 elections are less than 10 months away.