Is the Border Open? That’s What Americans Believe

And most migrants, too; key takeaways from the latest Harvard/Harris poll

By Andrew R. Arthur on September 29, 2023

The Biden administration repeatedly contends that the border isn’t open, despite the record numbers of aliens encountered by CBP last month alone. Perhaps the White House should talk to the voters who responded to the most recent Harvard/Harris poll, a solid majority of whom think that the southern border is open, that it’s open because the president isn’t enforcing the immigration laws, and that immigration is a major issue for the country.

That poll was conducted online for the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University by the Harris Poll and Harris X, which surveyed 2,103 registered voters between September 12 and 14.

Biden Immigration Approval. Just 36 percent of the respondents to that poll approved of the job that President Biden is doing on immigration. That’s the second-worst assessment of the president’s performance on a given issue out of nine that were polled, and just slightly trails only Biden’s performance in “handling inflation” (which garnered the support of only 35 percent of respondents) for the last spot.

Biden’s immigration performance has been stuck in the high 30s for the last three months, a decline from March when 41 percent of those polled approved of his handling of the issue, but a marked improvement from February 2022, when fewer than one-in-three (32 percent) of voters were happy with the job Joe Biden is doing on immigration.

Still, Biden’s current low scores when it comes to immigration are a problem for the incumbent as the 2024 election season heats up, given that it’s the third most important issue facing the country (out of 27) among those surveyed. “Price increases/inflation” took the top spot, the choice of 33 percent of voters polled, followed by the “economy and jobs” at 27 percent, and immigration at 24 percent.

House Republicans may want to place more emphasis on immigration, as it far outpolled certain issues they have been focused on of late, such as “taxes” (the most important issue for 10 percent of respondents), “weaponization of the Justice Department/FBI” (picked by 6 percent), and “political correctness/cancel culture” (again the most important issue among 6 percent of voters polled).

Democrats may want to take note, as well, given that the importance of immigration among voters swamps certain “red meat” issues they are offering to their base, such as “January 6” (4 percent), “women’s rights” (12 percent), and even guns (the fourth most popular option at 18 percent, but down three points from the last Harvad/Harris poll).

“Is Illegal Immigration to the United States Getting Better or Worse?” Illegal immigration should be a particular concern to the president and congressional Democrats, given the overwhelming number of voters who believe (reasonably) that it is headed in the wrong direction.

The voters surveyed were asked, “Is illegal immigration to the United States getting better or worse?”, and in response, 71 percent answered that it is getting worse compared to just 29 percent who believe that it’s getting better (raising the question of what their impression of “better” is).

There was a clear partisan skew on that issue, but likely not as partisan as the president would like. Not surprisingly, 88 percent of GOP voters stated that illegal immigration was getting worse, as opposed to just 12 percent who think it is getting better. That said, nearly three-quarters of independents — 74 percent — agree with the massive majority of Republicans that illegal immigration is getting worse compared to 26 percent of the non-politically aligned who believe it’s getting better.

That said, even a majority, 53 percent, of Biden’s fellow Democrats stated that illegal immigration is getting worse, compared to 47 percent who opined it’s getting better. Those 53 percent can’t all live in heavily Democratic northern cities like New York and Chicago that are getting hammered with their own illegal migrant surges.

“Is Our Southern Border Closed or Open?” Which brings me to the main topic — voters’ impressions of the current state of the southern border.

Harris asked respondents: “Is our southern border closed and immigration laws enforced, or is it largely open and laws are unenforced?”

In response, a solid majority, 56 percent, stated that the southern border is open and that our immigration laws are not being enforced, compared to just 44 percent who agree with administration officials like White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that the border is closed and that the administration is doing everything it can to keep it that way.

Those numbers would have been much, much worse for the president were it not for a heavy partisan skew in the responses.

Nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, of Democrats are toeing the party line and insisting that the southern border is closed and that the laws are being enforced, compared to 36 percent who believe the opposite is true.

Again, not surprisingly, more than three-quarters, 78 percent, of GOP voters believe the border is open and Biden is not enforcing the immigration laws there.

That, of course, leaves independent voters, and — by and large — their thoughts more closely align with the president’s loyal opposition in the Republican party than with the president’s fellow partisans in the Party of Jackson.

A majority of those in the middle, 57 percent, agree with nearly all GOP voters that the southern border is open and that the president’s not enforcing the law. By contrast, 43 percent of independents concur with Democrats that the southern border is closed and that the law is being enforced there.

Two Problems for Democrats. This all presents two problems for Democrats. First, immigration is plainly important to voters, but a majority in the center and center-right of the electorate believe the president is deliberately failing to address it. Second, it suggests that this same majority of voters think the White House isn’t being honest with Americans about what’s happening at the southern border.

That said, there are two reasons why Mayorkas, Jean-Pierre, and the rest of the administration would willingly hide the fact that the president’s policies have encouraged millions of migrants to come here illegally, one reasonable and the other shady.

The reasonable reason is that the administration wants to elide the state of the border to stop even more migrants from coming illegally. The shady explanation is that the president and his advisors have no problem with the current chaos at the southern border, but don’t want to come clean with why it suits their agenda just fine.

Is the southern border open? In the minds of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who are entering illegally monthly, it is, and a majority of American voters agree. Both impressions should be causing headaches for the president, but thus far he hasn’t acted like it. Soon, he may have to.