Polling Reveals Troubling Signs for Biden on Immigration

The president is underwater with Independent swing voters already, and things could get worse

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 5, 2021

The results of a Morning Consult/Politico poll on President Biden's performance in areas of importance to voters was released on February 3. It shows approval of the president's handling of various issues, but immigration was one of the outliers. It is not good news for the president.

Almost every recent president has had a "honeymoon period" (Donald Trump was an exception, for various reasons), best defined as a period with approval ratings higher than 55 percent. Franklin Roosevelt started the trend, with his "100-day program" to kick-start the economy in the depths of the Great Depression, but as Gallup noted in 2009, that period has been getting shorter in more recent administrations.

Biden's approval rating overall is 56 percent, relatively low in comparison to some of his predecessors, but not unexpected given a polarized electorate after a bruising election. As noted, however, his approval is not steady across the board on all issues.

His handling of Covid-19 tops the list, with 61 percent approval (including 33 percent of Republicans), likely a reflection of the electorate's interest in escaping pandemic lockdowns.

"Jobs", interestingly, comes in at just 50 percent, with strong approval ratings from Democrats (81 percent) lifting a dismal assessment from Independents (37 percent) and Republicans (19 percent). "National security" and "voting rights" register the same approval rating with similar distributions.

Then, there is immigration, where the president is not doing as well.

Only 47 percent of the electorate approves of his handling of the issue — 79 percent of Democrats, 14 percent of Republicans, and most telling, 36 percent of Independents. Only "gun policy" polls lower, at 40 percent.

This is interesting because, while there was not much coverage of immigration during the 2020 election (it only came up at the end of the last Biden-Trump debate, for example, and in questioning generally unfavorable to Trump), Biden has been extremely active in rolling back Trump's immigration policies since he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In an inauguration day memorandum, for example, the new leadership of DHS placed a halt on almost all ICE interior enforcement and removals from the United States. The latter is subject to a district-court temporary restraining order.

Also on inauguration day, the administration released a plan for a massive amnesty, coupled with an increase in legal immigration. The details of that plan were released on, and then taken down from, the White House website, as I noted on January 28. It is now back — perhaps the squeaky wheel got the grease, or its disappearance was simply a computer glitch.

Speaking of inauguration day, the president also repealed Trump travel restrictions (derided erroneously as a "Muslim ban", for reasons I have noted) on January 20.

That same day, Biden also sent a memorandum to the attorney general and the secretary of DHS "preserving and fortifying" the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Finally, on his first day in office, the president issued a proclamation halting border-barrier construction. It stated, dispositively: "It shall be the policy of my Administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall".

Biden then took a breather, but not for long.

On February 2, the president issued three different executive orders (EOs) dealing with immigration: one on child reunification; a second EO on a three-part strategy for migrants entering the United States illegally; and a third dealing with asylum and refugee issues (which I analyzed on February 4), the "public-charge rule", and naturalization (all covered in a February 2 post).

The Morning Consult-Politico poll was conducted between January 29 and February 1, and 1,986 registered voters gave responses — a pretty good sample (the margin of error is plus or minus 2 percent).

I will note that 14 percent of those polled either didn't know or had no opinion of Biden's handling of immigration. Only Biden's handling of Covid-19 (9 percent) and the economy (13 percent) had lower numbers on issues about which those polled either did not know or had no opinion.

That is likely because Biden's January 20 policies were well publicized by the point at which the poll was taken, and he certainly did not hide his feelings about the issues in the February 2 EOs before they were issued. They were prominent on his campaign website and in his public statements, and child separation was the first question asked at the October 23 debate, and the last point Biden made concerning immigration there.

I will also note that the percentage of those polled who disapproved of Biden's handling of the subject was 39 percent — 30 percent of whom "strongly" disapproved (which beat out "strongly approve" at 26 percent).

Women were actually less likely than men to strongly approve of Biden's handling of immigration (26 vs. 27 percent), but Independent men were much more likely to disapprove of Biden's performance on the issue (47 percent, 37 percent "strongly") than approve (33 percent, only 14 percent "strongly"). Independent women were narrowly split — 38 percent approval vs. 35 percent disapproval, but those who "strongly" disapproved (26 percent) swamped those who "strongly" approved (16 percent).

Independents generally were more likely to disapprove of Biden's handling of immigration (40 percent) than approve (as noted above, 36 percent), with strong disapproval among Independents (31 percent) more than doubling strong approval (15 percent).

When you are promoting DACA and the reunification of children as main immigration issues, and still are under water with Independents, you have a problem. Even Trump signaled support for a DACA fix.

Finally, those who approved of the job Biden was doing generally also approved of the job he was doing on immigration in particular (75 percent). But immigration may well have been a major issue for those who disapproved of Biden's performance generally, as 87 percent of them disapproved of Biden's handling of immigration specifically — 76 percent of them "strongly".

Keep in mind that these numbers simply reflect, by and large, Biden's handling of immigration based on the policies he has announced, not on the effect of those policies (the 100-day moratorium on interior enforcement and removals, which does not affect voters directly as a general matter, is an exception).

If there is a "Biden effect" of immigrants surging the border, as my colleague Todd Bensman has suggested could well occur (the administration has already had to open an overflow facility for 700 child migrants in Carrizo Springs, Texas), Biden's approval ratings will almost definitely fall. The voters dislike disorder at the border.

And, although Biden has promoted amnesty, it is an issue that generally polls better in the abstract than performs in the concrete. The last amnesty proposal, the so-called "Gang of Eight" bill failed, and unlike Biden's proposal, that bill actually had some enforcement provisions.

President Obama (a fairly savvy politician, and I have seen a few up close) never seriously pushed the issue when he had a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate and a majority in the House.

By the way, I will note that one of Biden's immigration-related acts — a January 25 proclamation barring the entry of aliens traveling from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, and the Schengen area in Europe during the pandemic (Trump had lifted a prior ban on January 18) — was among his most popular, with 68 percent supporting it (43 percent "strongly"), and just 19 percent in opposition. That is actually an immigration restriction.

Three other immigration-related issues were among Biden's least popular, at least according to the Morning Consult reporting on that poll (I could not find them in the polling data).

They were the halt on border wall construction (51 percent approval vs. 38 percent disapproval), the lifting of Trump's travel restrictions (48 percent for, 39 percent against), and including "undocumented immigrants" in the census (45 percent in favor, 42 percent against).

Those numbers are not terribly bad, but compare them to the Europe/Brazil/South Africa travel restrictions, which as noted received 68 percent approval. And, as the foregoing analysis shows, without the underlying statistics, it is difficult to really analyze those results. Those issues could be very popular with Democrats, but not so much with crucial Independent voters.

That those three were among the five least popular Biden actions (with the census issue dead last), his immigration policies have not been winning ones for the president thus far.

Two takeaways. First, Trump may have done better in the 2020 election had he highlighted immigration and corrected misconceptions about certain of his policies (and in particular the "Muslim ban" that wasn't).

Second, to the degree that Biden has any mandate at all, it does not appear to apply to his immigration positions. Independents are "swing" voters because they swing elections. When you are underwater with them on an issue, you should rethink your take on it.

Biden might have gotten a lot done on his first day in office, but the midterms are only 21 months away. Immigration has not been a winning issue for the president thus far, and a whole lot worse could happen with respect to the issue for him in the interim.