The Unpopular Shift in Democrats’ Immigration Policies

2007 Joe Biden would be a harsh critic of the Biden administration

By Andrew R. Arthur on July 22, 2022

On the night he was elected, Joe Biden promised “A Presidency for All Americans”. His administration’s immigration policies, however, have catered almost exclusively to his fellow Democrats, as recent polling reveals. That’s probably because the party’s leadership has broadly shifted away from positions that promoted border security and protected American workers, to one that favors the importation of foreign labor and rejects deterrence as a border policy.

Polling on Biden’s Immigration Policies and Performance. As I explained in April, then-recent Gallup polling revealed that 41 percent of Americans generally worried “a great deal” about aliens in the United States illegally, and another 19 percent were worried “a fair amount” — 60 percent total. By comparison, though, a plurality of Democrats polled by Gallup (44 percent) weren’t worried at all about illegal immigration.

More recent polls have revealed a similar split in the electorate. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted between July 8 and 10, 56 percent of respondents disapproved of Biden’s handling of immigration (42 percent “strongly”), while just 36 percent approved (a measly 11 percent “strongly”).

By comparison, 65 percent of Democrats polled approved of the job that Biden is doing on immigration (22 percent strongly), while just 24 percent disapproved (a mere 9 percent strongly).

Similarly, in an Economist/YouGov poll conducted between June 25 and 28, 6 percent of respondents identified immigration as their “most important issue” (out of 15 options). That figure would have been much higher, except just 1 percent of Democrats picked immigration as their number one issue, driving down the overall total.

Democratic Leadership’s Change Over Time. While border security and protecting American workers from unfettered immigration may seem to be strictly Republican concerns, that impression is of recent vintage.

For example, as the Center explained shortly after his death, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “began his political career as an immigration hawk who voted against President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty”.

At the outset of the Clinton administration in 1993, Reid introduced the Immigration Stabilization Act. The intent of the bill was: “To curb criminal activity by aliens, to defend against acts of international terrorism, to protect American workers from unfair labor competition, and to relieve pressure on public services by strengthening border security and stabilizing immigration into the United States.”

The bill would have slashed legal immigration by two-thirds, capped refugee admissions at 50,000 per year, and beefed up public charge standards. It would also have clarified that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not confer birthright citizenship upon children born to illegal immigrants.

Defending his bill in the Los Angeles Times in August 1994, Reid explained:

The federal government has been grossly irresponsible in its neglect of mounting immigration problems, even as these problems place unbearable burdens on states like California. It is regrettable that states have reached a point where the only avenue they have for justice is the courts. It is even more regrettable that this Administration and this Congress stand by and allow the federal courts to decide the nation’s immigration policies.

Someone tell that to the states that are now fighting in court to compel the Biden administration to enforce the immigration laws Congress has written, not the president’s impression of what those laws should be.

Or take Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic Socialist who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate and ran for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020. Numerous articles from the 2020 campaign — when Sanders called for breaking up CBP and dismantling what he termed “cruel and inhumane deportation programs” — referenced the senator’s ”evolving” views and “wild shifts” on immigration, and for good reason, because he used to believe much differently.

In a 2015 interview with Ezra Klein in Vox, for example, Sanders serially referred to “open borders” as “a Koch brothers proposal” and “a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States”, explaining:

It would make everybody in America poorer — you're doing away with the concept of a nation-state, and I don't think there's any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation-state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don't believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.

Of course, the Center has explained that civil rights icon and former Democratic Rep. Barbara Jordan (Texas), when she was Clinton’s chairwoman of the Commission on Immigration Reform in the 1990s, proposed any number of changes in the law that would be anathema to the party’s leadership today.

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) vs. President Joe Biden. Then, there is Joe Biden himself. In a November 2006 profile, NBC News described the then-senator from Delaware and incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as “favor[ing] tightening the U.S.-Mexico border with fences”.

Biden did in fact vote for, in his words “700 miles of fence” in the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which had been enacted just weeks before that profile was published. On his 2020 immigration campaign website, however, Biden changed his tune, asserting: “Building a wall will do little to deter criminals and cartels seeking to exploit our borders”.

In that nearly 16-year-old profile, however, Biden also attacked the Mexican government (contending, in NBC’s assessment, that “immigration is driven by money in low-wage Mexico” due to income inequality there) and U.S. employers who had hired illegal immigrants, the latter of whom Biden believed needed to be “punished”.

That is a far cry from the current president who depends on the Mexican government to control its own borders, and who ended worksite enforcement actions in the United States. Respectfully, you cannot punish those whom you cannot catch, which is what happens when ICE agents perform worksite “raids”.

Then, there were Sen. Biden’s August 2007 statements at a presidential campaign stop in Iowa, where he laid out a series of “truisms” about immigration and the border.

The first was: “It makes sense that no great nation can be in a position where they can’t control their borders”. The border under President Biden, however, is more insecure than it ever has been in our history — almost exclusively because Biden ditched the successful border policies of his predecessor (including “Remain in Mexico”) and has no interest in deterring illegal entries.

The 2007 version of candidate Biden next stated: “The second truism is that this nation is such that people in the country should have the first opportunity to be able to have jobs that pay well and have jobs that are decent and that after that, the second crack goes to what we may need from other parts of the world or any other input.”

Given that Biden’s DHS has introduced a new rule deliberately intended (among other things) to expedite work authorization for every illegal migrant who claims a fear of persecution, Biden appears to have concluded that American workers (citizens and lawful immigrants) no longer deserve the first crack at jobs.

Biden’s third truism sounds a bit more like the current occupant of the Oval Office:

The third sort of truism is that we as a country have never let, no matter what the source, children and the disadvantaged people — legal or illegal — be left out there to just atrophy, to just stay in the shadows, to be victimized. We’ve always given them a path, a path legally or illegally getting here.

That said, in his statements, Biden focused primarily on amnesty for aliens brought to this country as children.

Biden jumped around a lot after that. Notably, however, he criticized then-President George W. Bush for “putting a higher value on tax cuts for the wealthy than he did on protecting the border”, and complained about “our conservative business friends” who want to bring in workers on “work permits that will take away jobs of Americans right now”, decrying “the allowance of a significant increase — several hundred thousand people a year — to take regular jobs, particularly in the construction industry”.

That latter point is wildly out of sync with a president whose DHS withdrew a merit-based H-1B regulation developed by the Trump administration, which — as the Center has explained — now “means that the lowest-skilled foreign workers will continue to capture the lion’s share of” nonimmigrant H-1B work visas every year.

Biden Out of Touch with the American Electorate. Reid, Sanders, Jordan, and even the 2007 version of Biden proposed practical immigration solutions premised on two fundamental values: First, the border must be secure to prevent the entry of drugs, terrorists, and an unchecked flow of migrants. Second, while unlimited immigration may bolster big business, it does so at the expense of the most vulnerable American workers.

Leading Democrats have swung away from those solutions, but the majority of the electorate still holds those fundamental values, including former President Obama, who explained in September that “we're a nation-state. We have borders. The idea that we can just have open borders is something that ... as a practical matter, is unsustainable.”

Simply put, Joe Biden circa 2007 would have been one of the harshest critics of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, but would be far from the only one, as polling on the president’s immigration performance reveals.