Biden and the Immigration Trap

'Uncle Joe' Agonistes

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 21, 2020

On Tuesday, the Washington Post ran an article detailing the struggles confronting the campaign of presumptive Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden with respect to immigration. There are a few things that the article leaves out, but it is notable (and somewhat shocking) for what it contains. What it ultimately shows is that the former vice president is boxed into an immigration trap.

Specifically, the article details the competing forces that are pulling "Uncle Joe" on immigration as he seeks to wrest the White House from Donald Trump (whose immigration stance, the paper admits, helped propel him to the presidency in 2016).

On the one side is the presumptive candidate's desire to capture the votes of white blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (all won by Trump in the last election), while on the other is his need to turn out the Hispanic vote, particularly in Florida and Arizona. The article states that Latino voters "are expected to become the country's largest nonwhite voting bloc this fall."

Although the Post alludes to Biden's immigration proposals (which are somewhat out there, as I have described here, here, and here), and discusses his more outré ideas, such as suspending deportations for his first 100 days in office and then deporting only felons (which would essentially nullify much of the Immigration and Nationality Act), the Post simultaneously fails to note that those proposals would likely not resound with much of the voting populace, while at the same time contending that these policies don't go far enough for "significant segments of his own party".

Those "segments" are, the paper contends, clamoring for Biden to commit to "removing criminal penalties for those who cross the border illegally, removing barriers from the border [,and] abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement." There is likely a reason that Biden does not want to talk about those ideas on the campaign trail.

Polls don't show support for Biden positions

Polling from August 2018 — when the "Abolish ICE" fever was likely cresting — showed only 24 percent of voters supported the idea, with Democrats, Republicans, and independents staking out that position about equally. Some 40 percent disagreed, while 34 percent had no opinion.

Not to say that Democrats wildly supported the agency — 57 percent of Democrats had an unfavorable view of ICE, with an equal percentage of Republicans in favor of it, and 46 percent of independents took no view. Many of those opposed to abolition but who also don't like ICE likely were concerned about the law of unintended consequences, and by May 2019 Buzzfeed News reported: "'Abolish ICE' Was The Call Of Last Summer. 2020 Democrats Have Moved On".

Further, in July 2019, The Hill noted that a poll found "a plurality of voters, 41 percent, thought those crossing the border illegally should face criminal punishment, while 32 percent said it should just warrant a fine." With respect to independents, 36 percent favored criminal penalties, while "33 percent ... think it should be treated as a misdemeanor, with just a fine as punishment."

I note that this response shows a certain misapprehension of the current state of the law (initial illegal entry is already a misdemeanor, with a fine as an optional but rarely, if ever, imposed punishment, and most of those prosecuted are sentenced merely to time served while awaiting prosecution), suggesting that even those voters — if they knew the facts — would actually want stricter punishment than most aliens who have entered illegally already receive. No wonder the former vice president does not want to discuss the issue, let alone make it a key point for his campaign.

On barriers at the border, the polling is a bit more mixed. In February 2019, Gallup reported that six in 10 Americans opposed a border wall, but that poll was taken directly after a bruising government shutdown that largely focused on the issue. I will note that last Monday, KXAN (the NBC affiliate in Austin, Texas) released a poll showing that excitement for Donald Trump in Texas swamped enthusiasm for Biden in the Lone Star State. Most significantly:

When broken down by party, 19.5% of Democrats said they were extremely excited about Biden and 22.6 said they were "not that excited." Meanwhile, 49.4% of Republicans said they were "extremely excited" about supporting Trump and 9.5% reported they were not that excited about him.

Texas and Arizona are currently the primary sites for new border wall construction, and if Texans were that opposed to what is and has been the president's key immigration proposal, it would likely be reflected in their lack of enthusiasm. It does not seem to have moved the needle, however, or if it did, it is in Trump's favor.

I will note that I spoke on the issue in a debate in February before a largely liberal crowd, and opposition to the wall was an applause point (from an audience that all but defined the "Dunning-Kruger Effect" on the issue), but a lot has changed in three months. The Post itself reported on April 28 that 65 percent of Americans were in favor of a temporary suspension in immigration during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, with 34 percent opposed.

Polling found that 83 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of independents were in favor of temporary restrictions, and Democrats were split 49-49 on the issue. Significantly, 67 percent of whites, 61 percent of "nonwhites" (presumably including Latinos), and a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds were in favor. Now again, "temporary suspensions on immigration" and "border wall construction" are two different things, but an influx of illegal entrants during the (traditional) illegal travel season of April to December while lockdowns are still in place could tie the two issues in voters' minds, and gubernatorial inter-state travel restrictions may have done so already.

And voters stuck at home as a result of Wuhan coronavirus restrictions could be only temporarily less inclined to support the entry of aliens, legal or otherwise. That said, the transit of the illness from China could give them pause to take a slightly more charitable view toward Donald Trump's opposition to open borders.

Sound tough on China, or not?

Lest you think I am casting aspersions with respect to the last point (I am not, and consider anyone who blames any American — citizen or immigrant — for the virus to be an idiot), I am really just channeling the former vice president. The Post article on Biden notes: "Some were alarmed when the Biden campaign began airing an ad in battleground states that accused Trump of having 'rolled over for the Chinese' amid the pandemic and 'let in 40,000 travelers from China.'" That is an apt description of the response to that ad on the part of progressives.

In particular, an April 23 Politico article captioned "Biden ad exposes a rift over China on the left: The former vice president's effort to hit Trump as soft on Beijing is backfiring among parts of his base" states:

Joe Biden's effort to outflank President Donald Trump on China is leading to blowback from within his own political base.

Some worry the rhetoric in a new Biden campaign ad could spur anti-Asian bias already on the rise because of the coronavirus pandemic. Others argue that Biden's effort to sound tougher on China than Trump could backfire diplomatically in the long run.


"I acknowledge and understand the need and desire to defeat and beat Trump, however, my question is 'Who is the Biden campaign willing to sacrifice along that way?'" said Timmy Lu, executive director of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment.

So why did Biden release the ad? Because he was in a box over his earlier statements criticizing the president for his response to the Wuhan coronavirus the day that the White House announced restrictions on travel from the People's Republic of China. Specifically, Biden, campaigning in Iowa, stated: "This is no time for Donald Trump's record of hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia — and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science." (Curiously, the YouTube link to the video of those comments states: "Video unavailable, This video has been removed by the uploader." Hmmm.)

The Post notes that Biden has sought insight into handling the issue of immigration as a candidate from, among others, Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.). Casey fought off Republican Lou Barletta — an immigration hawk — in a 2018 challenge for Casey's senate seat, and:

He urged Biden to emphasize the economic benefits of immigration while pledging to secure the southern border to keep drugs and criminals out.

"You have to make it very clear that you stand for border security — and not just that you stand for it, but that you voted for it," Casey said, citing past measures that have won Democratic backing.

But, at the same time, he said most voters want an immigration system that is humane and fair. The separation of families at the border was a wake-up call for some voters, Casey said.

I am not sure how that border security advice squares with Biden's promise that "the only deportations that will take place" under his administration "are commissions of felonies in the United States of America" (meaning that Mexican cartel members who enter illegally will not be deported, for example), but for some reason the Post fails to mention the discrepancy.

That said, such advice is easier given to the former vice president than it will be swallowed by the American people, because of Biden's record.

I would posit initially that recommendations like Casey's are likely the reason that Biden's immigration proposals begin:

It is a moral failing and a national shame when a father and his baby daughter drown seeking our shores. When children are locked away in overcrowded detention centers and the government seeks to keep them there indefinitely. When our government argues in court against giving those children toothbrushes and soap. When President Trump uses family separation as a weapon against desperate mothers, fathers, and children seeking safety and a better life.

The Obama-Biden administration's record

Again, easily said. It will, however, be very difficult for Biden to distance himself from some very similar policies enacted under the "Obama-Biden administration".

There is likely a reason why Biden does not (directly) fall back on the "kids in cages" trope that has become a standard for tendentious discussions of immigration by political hacks. As I have previously noted:

Snopes (not exactly a Trump-friendly outlet) examined the following fact: "The Obama administration, not the Trump administration, built the cages that hold many immigrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border." They deemed that statement "true", explaining:

Pictures of children behind chain-link fencing were captured at a site in McAllen, Texas, that had been converted from a warehouse to an immigrant-detention facility in 2014. Social media users who defended Trump's immigration policies also shared a 2014 photograph of Obama's Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson, touring a facility in Nogales, Arizona, in 2014, in which the fencing could be seen surrounding migrants there as well. That picture was taken during a spike in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central American countries.

That said, there is a direct line from "children ... locked away in overcrowded detention centers and the government [that] seeks to keep them there indefinitely", who cannot access "toothbrushes and soap" and the decisions of the previous administration to erect fencing in Border Patrol processing centers to protect unaccompanied alien children (UACs). One that Biden would likely prefer to be forgotten.

And a direct line to the Obama-Biden administration's 2014 "blanket policy to detain all female-headed families, including children, in secure, unlicensed facilities for the duration of the proceedings that determine whether they are entitled to remain in the United States," which prompted Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to find President Obama's Department of Homeland Security in breach of the Flores settlement agreement in July 2015.

Plus, as I have previously noted ad nauseam, the fact that UACs were stuck in the conditions Biden describes had everything to do with Congress's (and especially congressional Democrats') failure to provide funding Trump and his acting Homeland Security secretary had sought for more than a month, and nothing to do with a volitional decision by the administration to keep them there.

These facts may have been elided by a compliant press (the Post did not mention them at all in its Biden immigration piece), but I doubt that they will escape notice during a presidential campaign when the president and independent interest groups can throw money at ads highlighting them.

Pandering to Latino voters

Then, there is the pandering by Biden and his surrogates themselves. Much of Biden's outreach to Latino voters appears to focus on immigration, but is that really the most important issue to those voters?

In a June 2019 survey by Unidos US, "jobs and the economy" was the most important issue an ideal candidate would address (23 percent) for 1,854 eligible Latino voters in Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, and Texas, followed by "healthcare" (17 percent) and then "immigration" (15 percent). "Gun violence" (8 percent) and "climate change" (7 percent) together equaled that total.

Unidos US, for those who are not familiar, is the current incarnation of the "National Council of La Raza", which bills itself as "the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization". Hardly a MAGA front group.

Given these numbers, it is no surprise that the Atlantic magazine in February stated that 30 percent of Latino voters support the president, in an opinion piece captioned "Latino Support for Trump Is Real: And that's a problem for Democrats" (not to be confused with the outlet's January 2020 article captioned "Democrats Should Be Worried About the Latino Vote: Political organizers have a warning for the 2020 candidates").

In this vein, in early May, Slate ran an article captioned "Biden Has a Real Latino Problem", which stated:

A recent Latino Decisions poll reveals a clear enthusiasm gap among Latinos for both Biden and the 2020 election itself, with only 49 percent of registered voters currently committed to choosing Biden over Trump, and just six out of 10 planning to go to the polls in November.

That article focuses on Biden's initial reluctance to distance himself from what the outlet deems "the controversial immigration policy of the first two years of the Obama administration" (perhaps too good a sales job by a president whose rhetoric on removals did not match his actions), and Biden's inability to present himself to Hispanic voters due to the current pandemic.

Speaking of which, Slate notes that: "According to the Latino Decisions poll, almost half of all respondents approve of Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis, with 47 percent saying Trump was delivering 'clear and helpful' information about the pandemic." Again, showing that "immigration" is not the only concern of Hispanic voters.

Back to the pandering, however. The Post notes that Biden's "wife Jill, who is learning Spanish while stuck at home by the pandemic, has begun meeting weekly with small groups of Latino members of Congress, taking notes on a range of issues to share with her husband" (I don't have the heart to tell her they speak English), and the article is accompanied by a photo of Biden "at a campaign stop at King Taco in Los Angeles, with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti".

The paper also reports that "Biden campaign officials have promised to significantly increase outreach to Latinos and further diversify the staff now that they have raised more money, although," the Post notes, "they declined to provide target numbers."

I suppose that a Spanish-speaking spouse, an ethnically diverse staff, and a documented hankering for regional cuisine may win Biden some votes, but the fact is he is stuck in an immigration box.

If he ties himself to the "Obama-Biden" administration on the issue, it appears that he will alienate both immigration activists and those who favor the Trump administration's reversal of those policies. But, if he panders to those activists, he will likely turn off many of the voters in swing states who supported Trump in 2016 (and especially those who were swayed by the now-president's promises of border security and immigration limitations).

A January article in the Post contained a list of "Bidenisms", folksy aphorisms that the candidate uses on the stump. One is: "My dad had an expression ... 'Joey, don't compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.''' Most voters already know that the president has his flaws and imperfections, but once voters get to know Biden's immigration record and his proposals, they may pull the level for Trump as the better alternative.

Topics: Politics