New Polling Underscores Biden’s Immigration Vulnerabilities

But congressional Republicans are playing catch-up when it comes to messaging

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 27, 2023

Mid-February saw two new polls on the president’s immigration policies and performance. Long story short: The American people aren’t pleased with the job Biden is doing, but as importantly, those polls suggest that — for now — congressional Republicans are playing catch-up as the White House seeks to control the messaging on what’s really occurring at the Southwest border.

Harvard/Harris. Between February 16 and 17, the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University, the Harris Poll, and Harris X asked 1,838 registered voters for their views on Biden’s overall performance, other public figures and institutions, and specific topic areas.

There have been a lot of ups and downs in Biden’s overall approval rating throughout his term, but views on his overall performance in that poll now appear to have stabilized as he begins his third year in office.

If that sounds like good news for the White House, it’s not. According to that poll, 55 percent of respondents disapprove of the president’s performance (38 percent “strongly”), compared with 42 percent who approve (21 percent strongly).

Biden’s approval in Harvard/Harris polls has remained steady in a range between 41 percent and 43 percent since September, and conversely his disapproval has varied only slightly between 54 percent and 56 percent during that same period.

Curiously, Biden has received a boost of late with respect to his performance in certain areas. Some 48 percent of respondents approve of the job Biden is doing in stimulating jobs (up 10 points from polling last February), and 43 percent of respondents approve of his handling of foreign affairs (again, up 10 points from last February).

Biden’s lowest marks? His handling of inflation and immigration, two areas in which he receives an approval rating of just 38 percent.

With respect to immigration, that’s down slightly from November and December, when 40 percent of respondents approved of his performance, but up one point from January. Of course, that January polling came on the heels of a massive surge in illegal migrants at the Southwest border heading into the new year.

Immigration remains in the top three issues that respondents believe are the most important facing the country today, the choice of 24 percent of respondents, trailing just “the economy and jobs” (27 percent) and “price increases/inflation” (36 percent). None of the remaining 23 issues on the list broke the 20 percent mark.

That said, the fact that 24 percent of respondents identified immigration as the most important U.S. issue in the February poll reflects a four-point decline in the respondents’ opinion of the importance of that issue since January.

That four-point drop in the importance of immigration is likely influenced by a decline in illegal entries in January, and of the president highlighting that decrease in his State of the Union (SOTU) address.

On February 13, I explained why the January border numbers were nothing for the president to crow about (he’s really only doing better than he had been, which is historically dreadful), but this is a point most of the media and even congressional Republicans have been slow to pick up on.

Speaking of the SOTU, 23 percent of respondents in the Harvard/Harris poll thought the president should have focused more on immigration and the border in his annual address to Congress. Again, that trailed only the economy (29 percent) and “inflation and prices” (35 percent) as issues that voters would have liked to have heard Biden talk more about.

A February 11 post focused on the short shrift Biden gave to immigration and the border in the SOTU (his coverage of the topic ran just 117 words, including the introductory conjunction “and”), with the latter third of his remarks an irrelevant (and likely futile) call for Congress to pass a massive amnesty.

The SOTU is the president’s biggest annual stage, and highlighting the dismal and harmful effects of his feckless border policies would have been self-defeating for Biden. Coverage of the address rarely touches on points that the president doesn’t make, which on this topic shifted the burden to the opposition to explain how bad things are.

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-Ark.), a former Trump press secretary, did her best in the limited amount of time she had for her rebuttal in response to Biden’s remarks:

President Biden inherited the ... most secure border in history. ... But over the last two years, Democrats destroyed it all. ... As a mom, my heart breaks for every parent who has lost a son or daughter to addiction. 100,000 Americans a year are now killed from drug overdoses, largely from fentanyl pouring in across our southern border. Yet the Biden administration refuses to secure the border and save American lives. ... President Biden is unwilling to defend our border, defend our skies, and defend our people.

All good points, but it is now incumbent on congressional Republicans to flesh out those statements and sell them to the American people.

Finally, Harvard/Harris asked respondents how believable they found certain contentions Biden made in the SOTU. One was that there are a “record number of personnel working to secure the border”, which just over half (51 percent) weren’t so sure about, while just under half (49 percent) believed to be true.

This statement may or may not be true, but in any event it elides the facts that (1) Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border are still so overwhelmed by a record number of illegal entrants that they can’t secure the border in any meaningful way; (2) sending additional processing clerks to release migrants more expeditiously degrades border security and national sovereignty; and (3) moving Northern border agents south leaves the U.S.-Canada line increasingly undefended.

Quinnipiac. Quinnipiac University polled 1,429 registered voters between February 9 and 14, publishing the results on February 16.

Sixty-three percent of respondents in that poll disapproved of Biden’s handling of immigration, compared to just 27 percent who approved.

As miserable as those results might appear for the White House, it’s actually a marked improvement for the president. When Quinnipiac asked respondents the same question in January, more than two out of three (68 percent) disapproved of Biden’s handling of immigration, and just 23 percent approved.

That wasn’t a blip, because Quinnipiac received a similar response from respondents (67 percent disapproval, 23 percent approval) who were asked about Biden’s immigration performance in October.

If I were one of the West Wing apparatchiks advising Biden on his immigration and border policies, I would still be a little nervous, however, and not just because Biden remains 36 points underwater on the issue.

When Quinnipiac offered respondents a list of 11 issues and asked them which was the “most urgent issue facing the country today”, 14 percent said it was immigration, the second-leading response, just after “inflation” (the choice of 29 percent). “Gun violence” (11 percent) was the only other issue that polled in the double digits.

To put those responses into context, it’s important to note that immigration is surging as America’s most urgent issue in Quinnipiac’s polling while voters’ inflation fears are starting to cool.

When respondents were asked the same questions in January, inflation again topped the list (35 percent identified it as the “most urgent”), and while immigration was then also in second place, it was the most urgent concern of “just” 11 percent of those responding to that poll.

As recently as July, immigration was a comparative afterthought as an issue in that poll, the choice of 8 percent of respondents and tied with “election laws” and “abortion” for third place after inflation and gun violence.

In other words, the significance of immigration as an issue is surging in the minds of American voters, while at the same time they also think that Biden is doing a marginally less bad (“better” is hardly the word) job at handling it.

Congressional Republicans. The GOP retook the majority in the House of Representatives after four years out of power in the People’s House, and immediately engaged in a bruising internecine battle over the speakership. Erstwhile Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) ended up taking the House speaker’s gavel after what NPR described on January 7 as “15 votes and days of negotiations”.

That put Republicans behind in organizing the current 118th Congress, but when they were done the most important chairmanships from an immigration perspective went to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) at the House Judiciary Committee and Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) at the House Homeland Security Committee.

Taking apparent advantage of Republicans’ initial disarray, the White House issued its “New Border Enforcement Actions” on January 5, followed up by proposed changes to the regulations governing border asylum claims that were published on February 23.

The former, as I explained on January 5, are simply a more ordered version of existing Biden policies that funnel illegal migrants into the United States with the contention (real or feigned) that all migrants are would-be “asylum seekers”.

Specifically, rather than releasing those migrants into the United States after they have crossed the border illegally (which had been the Biden status quo ante, in contravention of statutory detention mandates), the new “Enforcement Actions” funnels them through the ports of entry to be released, instead (which flies equally in the face of Congress’s commands).

The administration contends that this port plan somehow constitutes a “legal pathway” for those migrants to enter the United States (it isn’t) and that is “safe” for those migrants to access (it really isn’t), and for some reason most of those in the media have taken the bait.

The new asylum rule, as my colleague Elizabeth Jacobs has explained, is so shot full of loopholes and exceptions as to offer little or no improvement at all. Despite that fact, many public observers and “experts” — including outlets that should know better — have compared to it the Trump-era asylum “transit bar”.

That Trump plan would have been effective in protecting migrants in need while deterring the rest (had it been allowed to take effect) by requiring “other than Mexican” migrants to apply for asylum in any country they passed through that grants asylum (which is every country in the Western Hemisphere other than Cuba and Guyana) before seeking asylum here.

The Biden rule? Not so much, as Jacobs explains.

House Republicans will be playing catch-up if they expect to prove that the Biden administration’s recently announced border and asylum policies simply hide the ongoing scope of the anarchy at the Southwest border. Plainly, as these polls reveal, Biden is convincing certain sectors of the electorate that he is “doing something” on an issue that they are increasingly concerned about.