News Analysis: Why Biden's order on the 'out of control' border may not fix Democrats' political problem

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk to board Air Force One at the Caen-Carpiquet Airport in Carpiquet, France, Thursday, June 6, 2024. Earlier, the President and first lady had participated in ceremonies to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, in Normandy. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden on Thursday after ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of D-day. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Biden has been trying to frame the November election around two subjects: his legislative accomplishments and former President Trump’s fitness to serve.

But Biden’s own vulnerabilities have been getting in the way. High among them for many voters is a sense that the country is in chaos, fueled in part by images of an overwhelmed southern border that have flooded television screens and social media feeds since he took office.

“The fentanyl that is coming across the border is coming into our communities,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto — a Democrat from Nevada, where Biden is down by an average of 6 percentage points to Trump — said in an interview. “The human trafficking that happens at the border comes into our communities.”

That helps explain why Biden took executive action this week that severely limits the rights of migrants to seek asylum — an order that surprised and angered many allies on the left and could very well be struck down in court.

“He did what he had to do, not just because it is a huge campaign issue, but because it’s a genuine problem,” said David Axelrod, who served as a top political advisor to former President Obama. “He probably should have done it sooner.”

Read more: Tired and confused, first migrants reach California border after Biden's asylum order

Biden, Axelrod, Cortez Masto and other Democrats have been laying the border problem at the feet of Republicans, who tanked a bipartisan bill earlier this year that would have given the president more money and leverage for enforcement because Trump wanted to keep the issue alive for the campaign.

Despite his role in killing the bill, Trump maintains a big lead on the question of which candidate can better handle illegal immigration, including an ABC poll released last month that showed he leads Biden 47% to 30% on whom to trust more on fixing the border.

A campaign “is always a combination of offense and defense,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.

Whether it works or not, Biden is playing defense on this one.

But there are serious policy and political questions — some of which are out of his control — that could thwart the effort’s impact.

Handing migrants back to their home countries in a speedy manner, as the Biden administration plans, works only if they are from Mexico and a handful of countries that are part of an agreement that allows Mexico to take them.

Migrants from Russia, China, Venezuela and many other countries that have come in higher numbers of late are likely to remain stuck in a clogged asylum system that could allow them to await a hearing in the United States, regardless of whether the administration attempts to limit their options, said Ariel Ruiz Soto, senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Ruiz Soto predicts the number of border crossings will stay relatively low — as it has been in recent months — for a couple of months while smugglers and migrants figure out whether there are loopholes to exploit in the new system.

But later in the summer, a variety of factors beyond Biden’s control could emerge, including the potential reelection of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in July, which could spark another wave of migrants seeking escape from that country’s security, economic and political crisis.

Biden must also depend on continued help from Mexico under newly elected President Claudia Sheinbaum. So far this year, the country is on pace to surpass the record number of migrants it apprehended last year, he said.

One of the biggest flaws in the new policy is that it lacks money for enforcement and the heightened level of protection in the courts that a law passed by Congress would have provided. Republicans, despite their own culpability in tanking congressional efforts, immediately labeled Biden’s bill “a scam.”

“If you want the border secured and you want this group to do it, you’re going to die waiting,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who supported the bipartisan package, told reporters this week.

Read more: Biden signs order tightening border with Mexico when crossings surge

Many of Biden’s critics predicted the action will be held up in court while arguing that the administration would be happy with a delay.

“The most immediate thing he was trying to do was come up with a talking point for the debate with Trump later this month,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration. “He needs to at least pretend to be doing something.”

Not all Democrats are convinced there is much to be gained for Biden either.

Polls tend to show the issue ranks highly among Americans’ concerns; immigration consistently ranks third after the economy and government/leadership issues in monthly polls conducted by Gallup.

But polls that break the issue down by party often show most of the concern is on the Republican side. “I don’t necessarily think that there are a whole lot of persuadable voters who think this is the most important issue,” said Greenberg, who also conducts focus groups.

But many elected Democrats in battleground states and districts were among the quickest to support Biden’s new policy, suggesting they at least see a need for some protection against Republican attacks.

Voters are seeing a “process that looks like it's out of control for immigration and they want a secure process,” Greenberg said.

Read more: Kamala Harris was tapped to fix the immigration crisis. Then the problem shifted

And that includes Latino voters, who want both security and fairness in the system, said Cortez Masto, who is of Mexican heritage. “And I’ve talked to them and you can do both” if Congress acts, she added.

Polls show Biden losing support among Latinos compared with previous Democrats, including Obama, who won more than 70% of the Latino vote in his 2012 reelection. But Fernand Amandi, who led Obama’s polling efforts with Latinos in both of his elections, said it usually ranks fifth or sixth in importance, depending on the poll.

“Immigration is not the animating issue for Hispanic voters, who by definition are not directly impacted by immigration policy given that they are citizens,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not an important issue, but it’s not the be-all, end-all issue that's been ascribed to them.”

Latino activist groups and some leading politicians are nonetheless furious and have warned Democrats that they could suffer from a further lack of enthusiasm at the ballot box. The California Latino Legislative Caucus urged Biden to reverse the order.

“We cannot afford to return to Trump-era immigration policies that threaten the lives of refugees or delegitimize migrants for the sake of political expediency,” Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, a Riverside Democrat who chairs the group, said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), who has emerged as Biden’s biggest immigration critic on the left, said the president still has time to fulfill campaign promises to fix the system in a more holistic way that would provide legal protections for more essential workers and farmers who were praised during the pandemic but are now threatened with deportation by Biden.

In the meantime, he wants the party to go back to playing offense.

“You want to see chaos and disorder?” he said in an interview. “If Trump were to get reelected … family separations and mass deportations. That would create chaos and disorder in communities across the country and to our economy.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.