Bashing Migrants Isn’t the Way to Win an Election

The Biden administration is at risk of squandering much of the moral capital it gained in early 2021 undoing Trump’s anti-immigrant policies by signing an asylum ban.

An asylum seeker holds her child outside her tent at the Juventud 2000 shelter in Tijuana on June 4, 2024. The United States will temporarily close its Mexico border to asylum seekers, as President Joe Biden tries to neutralize his political weakness on migration ahead of November’s election battle with Donald Trump.

(Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP)

I flew into San Diego airport at 11 pm last week. Throughout the public area of the terminal, around the baggage claim carousels and on the seats in the waiting areas, dozens of people were camped out. They didn’t look to be regular airport travelers who had missed the last flight out and were waiting overnight for an early morning connection; rather, they came off as desperate, their possessions in plastic or cheap tote bags instead of rolling suitcases, with nowhere to go.

A quick Google search revealed that hundreds of asylum seekers, dumped on San Diego’s city streets without any resources to fall back on, now bed down in the airport each night. They have been doing so since late last year. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that more people are now crossing the border at San Diego than anywhere else in the country—and that county resources to help these migrants have largely dried up, leaving volunteers to desperately try to fill the gap.

Similar chaotic scenes are playing out around the country, prompted by the exodus of despairing families from countries riven by wars and gang violence, the dislocations of climate change, and the corruption and incompetence of failed governments often controlled by narco-traffickers. Increasingly, large parts of the world are becoming literally unlivable for the poor—and, as they have done throughout recorded history, the downtrodden are voting with their feet and seeking to better their lives in other locales.

By the millions, they are heading toward wealthier, more stable countries, where they hope for miracles. Too often, however, they enter into a world of renewed uncertainty and refashioned deprivation. Instead of a pot of gold, they find a cold, uncomfortable seat in an airport terminal to bed down on for the night—or the week, or the month. And, increasingly, instead of countries willing to take in the world’s poor and huddled masses yearning for freedom and a new start, they run up against an inward-looking, angry, and unforgiving politics.

Three and a half years ago, Joe Biden won against Donald Trump in part by running as the antidote to the administration’s loathsome and xenophobic policies against migrants. Biden promised that, beginning on day one, he would end a tranche of Trump-era policies on everything from family separation to religious-based travel bans, that he would roll back new regulations intended to exclude immigrants from all parts of the social safety net, that he would once again open the country to refugees. And, to his credit, when he came into office, he fulfilled many of those promises. When Trump left office, for example, the cap on new refugee admissions had been set at 15,000 for fiscal year 2021, and Trump’s noxious adviser Stephen Miller had proposed zeroing out all admissions. Today, the cap is 125,000.

Trump also slashed the number of legal immigrants coming into the country on a variety of visa programs. By some estimates, legal migration fell by nearly 50 percent during his presidency. Biden, in contrast, has opened avenues to legal migration into the US, resulting in a large increase in the number of people migrating here. Each month, up to 30,000 Haitians, Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans are now able to claim temporary legal status under parole programs the Trump administration tried to eliminate but the Biden administration expanded.

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Biden was able to embark on these ambitious changes at least in part because of a temporary rush of popular goodwill toward immigrants. In reaction to the depredations of the Trump era, majorities of Americans embraced far more sympathetic attitudes towards immigrants and immigration.

Four years on, however, as desperate, poor, and war-weary migrants continue to trek northward, in stunningly high numbers, to the US border with Mexico, much of that goodwill seems to have evaporated. Like the populist right parties in Europe, posed to do so well in the upcoming European Parliament elections, Trump has been relentlessly beating the anti-immigrant drums—stating that new arrivals are poisoning the nation’s lifeblood, and reiterating his call to lock out immigrants from many poor and non-Christian countries. At the same time, the conservative press has talked up the “border crisis,” stirring up decades-long tensions. Visual images of migrants camped out in airports, on city streets, in overcrowded shelters, or in parks, have saturated social media. And, increasingly, the voting public has concluded that immigrants are a “problem” rather than a societal boon, that they are a suck on resources rather than a source of economic and cultural vitality.

While most voters don’t support MAGA solutions on individual policies—such as whether to grant DACA recipients legal status—when asked generally whether they trust Biden or Trump more on immigration, by large majorities they say Trump.

This dispiriting reality is the political backdrop against which President Biden signed his executive order on Tuesday locking down the border once daily asylum-seeker levels surpass a certain number. (The number chosen was 2,500, which conveniently allowed Biden to implement an immediate lockdown.)

Biden’s hand may indeed have been forced by the current swirl of election-year politics, but I do not believe the executive order will help him that much. Conservatives’ views on immigration are pretty much baked in at this point, as is their Fox News–fueled notion that Biden is an Open Borders loony-lefty. The idea that they will now have a come-to-Jesus moment because Biden has signed one executive order seems to me optimistic at best. Far more likely, the policy pivot will simply give the convicted felon Donald J. Trump and his supporters room for a victory lap, arguing that the situation is so dire that even “Open Borders Joe” has been forced to take some action.

Meanwhile, progressives are outraged at a policy that, in the name of political expediency, sacrifices the possibility, guaranteed in international and US law, of the most vulnerable to claim asylum. The ACLU has already promised to sue to block the executive order’s implementation, and dozens of immigrant rights groups publicly condemned the policy.

Biden gained a huge amount of moral capital in the first weeks of his presidency by undoing many of the Trump era’s harshest anti-immigrant policies. Now, in its scramble to shore up votes heading into November, the administration is at risk of squandering much of that capital by embracing some of the same legal tools that Biden’s predecessor used to fashion a ghastly anti-immigrant agenda. What’s worse, should Trump win in November, he has pledged to implement even more aggressive policies, thus making immigrants communities even more vulnerable. In such a moment, Biden’s administration should be doing everything it can to push back against the slide to xenophobia. Bashing asylum seekers seems hardly the way to do this.

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Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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