Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
President Biden knows, just like his Democratic predecessors, that the immigration problem on the southern border is hard to solve. It almost certainly explains why he put Kamala Harris, the Vice President, in direct charge of the border, with one eye on re-election in 2024 and the possibility that his main Democratic challenger could be Harris herself. It is the most poisoned of chalices.
On before, I have written about whether controlling the influx at the border really matters to this administration. We are about to find out. The southern border is expected to reopen in a phased manner in the coming weeks.
While the thousands of miles that separate the USA and Mexico are often thought of as route to freedom for immigrants, it is also a critical trade artery linking two interconnected economies. The economic need to reopen the border has to be counterbalanced with concerns about security.
White House allies are worried that neither Biden nor Harris are ready for the logistical and humanitarian impact of opening the border. Politically, the real concern is the impact and optics of tens of thousands of migrants surging towards the border and claiming a right to live and work in the United States.
Currently and until restrictions change, the United States is limiting land border crossings from Mexico and Canada to “essential travel”. The of what constitutes “essential” is not short, but what is clear is a shared desire to limit border crossings as much as possible over ongoing Covid concerns.
Restrictions are slated to remain in effect until 23:59 on July 21. Without an extension, legal land crossing for work and recreation will resume. Like night follows day, what will also resume is the attempted illegal border crossings that take place every year.
It is hardly a shock that the Biden administration will take a softer approach to immigration on the southern border compared to Donald Trump. Law and order, immigration control and border enforcement has been a Republican talking point and policy platform for decades. Democrats have tried harder to strike a balance between border control and creating a path to citizenship for children of immigrants.
The Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Since that date, DACA has allowed more than 800,000 immigrant youth who came to the United States as children to temporarily remain in the USA, get an education and pursue gainful employment.
On June 15 this year – “DACA Day” – Biden gave a speech continuing his support for deferred citizenship. The House of Representatives passed the American Dream and Promise Act in March, and a draft U.S. Citizenship Act creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals in the USA, including Dreamers.
Are Democrats walking into a Republican trap?
Democrats want to create a legal pathway to citizenship for child immigrants. The progressive left is especially passionate about this cause and wants Biden and Harris to soften their tone on migrant caravans travelling through central America and arriving at the border.
Republicans wants to solidify the southern border and protect existing communities. Building new and enforcing existing border fencing was a top priority of Trump on the campaign trail and when president. It remains a central issue for the GOP.
With the mid-term elections next year and a presidential election in 2024, Republicans sense White House weakness and a political opportunity.
At this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, Trump gave a vintage Trump speech. Among a long list of familiar gripes – stolen election, big tech, cancel culture – and some unfamiliar talking points – magnets, steam engines, toothbrushes – were repeated mentions of the “border”. Twenty three of them to be precise.
This matters because of how structurally central Trump is to the Republican Party. Trump comfortably outpolled the field in a straw poll at CPAC, with 70 per cent favouring him to run for the presidency in 2024. Trump’s approval rating amongst CPAC attendees was 98 per cent. Where he goes, others will follow.
Use the 45th president’s CPAC speech to better understand the themes on which Republicans want to fight the midterms and 2024 presidential election:
“With the help of everyone here today, we will defeat the radical left, the socialists, Marxists, and the critical race theorists. Whoever thought would be even using that term. We will secure our borders. We will stop left wing cancel culture. We will restore free speech and fair elections, and we will make America great again. It’s very simple. Very simple.”
Even if this White House take a gradual and phased approach to the border, the thorniest issues will persist. The ultimate dilemma is whether to hold immigrants in detention centres or release them as they await their court proceedings. The former results in a policy that progressives consider unacceptably inhumane and positively Trumpian. The latter can create a backlog which can take years to clear.
The Biden administration would do well to listen to voters, as well as its members
Biden is working hard to keep his Congressmen and Senators on side. With the Senate split 50-50, history dictates that the Democrats will lose their de facto majority in next year’s midterms. With that, the White House will lose the ability to get legislation approved in a simple up-and-down vote. So, keeping the caucus happy matters now more than ever.
A new by the National Republican Senate Committee and the Republican Governors Association showed 53 per cent of voters say they are less likely to support Democrats for Congress because of the increase in migrants at the border.
Can Biden keep his party happy while ensuring he does not gift political mileage on a favourite issue of his likely opponent in 2024, Trump? We will find out soon.