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Why Biden Is Leaning In On Immigration

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We know what the Biden administration is doing on immigration. But do we know why they are doing it?

Last week, the administration announced it will begin admitting thousands of asylum-seekers who have been stuck in dangerous conditions in northern Mexico. In addition, the administration announced that it will jumpstart the decimated refugee resettlement program by raising the refugee cap to 125,000 for the next fiscal year. 

These actions come on the heels of earlier actions to reinstate DACA, stop the construction of the border wall, end the Muslim and Africa visa bans, reunite separated families, extend protections to Liberians, impose a 100-day deportation pause (later enjoined by a Trump judge in Texas), restrict enforcement to serious public safety threats, and announce a regional strategy to manage asylum, border processing and the complexities of Central American migration. 

Later this week, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) will unveil the Senate and House versions of the “U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021,” the detailed legislative proposal outlined by President Biden on day one of his presidency. 

Biden has been President for less than a month. 

He and his team are delivering on its promises, reversing the cruelty and chaos of the Trump administration, working to build a new system that is fair, humane and functional, and proposing their own bill to create a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. Here’s our take on why:

  • Public opinion – Americans increasingly pro-immigrant: It turns out that Trump’s nativism backfired with the majority of Americans. His cruelty forced a choice, and a solid majority came down on the side of immigrants. Gallup 2020 polling showed support for immigrants and for increasing immigration levels — questions they have been asking since 1965 — is at its highest level ever. Pew Research 2020 polling found that 60% believe the growing number of newcomers strengthen American society while 37% say they threaten traditional customs and values – a whopping 14 percentage point shift in the pro-immigrant direction in just the past four years. In addition, support for legal status and citizenship for the undocumented is a point of strong consensus: Polling in 2021 from Quinnipiac, PRRI; Vox; and Morning Consult have all found strong majority support – from the mid-60s to the mid-80s depending on the framing of the question –  for a permanent solution for undocumented immigrants. 
  • Electoral politics – GOP xenophobic attacks are losing their edge: Republicans have wielded immigration as a potent wedge issue for 25 years. Xenophobic attack ads have become a staple of GOP campaigns (see our just-released report, GOP Ad Wars in 2020: Divisive, Anti-immigrant and Racist). But in recent cycles, nativism as a wedge issue seems to be losing its edge. In the last election, Biden was attacked in ads for supporting “amnesty.” So were Democratic Representatives Conor Lamb and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania. So was Mark Kelley of Arizona. They all won. Why? Our pollsters at GSG asked in battleground states. Their take: “few voters – and even fewer swing voters – find this [attack] to raise doubts about voting for Biden, even though many believe the line to be true. That’s because voters largely support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.” Remember 2018 and the caravans? It backfired, big time, with Democrats winning the largest midterm victory in American history. 
  • Movement power is broader and deeper: The immigrant justice movement has changed the terms of the debate. The movement has increasingly demanded and won a bold rethink of the hyper-enforcement of recent administrations. Add the growing power of bottom-up electoral power — highlighted by the 2020 upsets in Arizona and Georgia — and Democrats are leaning forward on issues of race and immigration as never before. This is a far cry from the 2000s, when Democrats were split on the issue of immigration. In 2007 a third of Senate Democrats voted against an immigration reform bill that legalized millions, and Rahm Emanuel infamously called immigration a “third rail” issue that Democrats should avoid. Now, Democrats know that a core principle of the party is to fight for immigrants and refugees. 
  • Biden and Democrats are focused on solving the big problems facing America: Among Biden’s priorities are eliminating COVID, getting our economy moving again, coming to the financial rescue of families, reversing climate change, advancing racial equity and shifting the national security priorities of DHS to real threats (as opposed to imagined threats from those seeking refuge in the U.S.). All of these enjoy strong public support, because all address long-overdue public priorities. Biden is doing the same on immigration. The public has decided: America should be a welcoming nation; undocumented immigrants should be given a chance to apply for legal status and citizenship; and refugees should be given a fair chance at freedom in America. Instead of letting pundits and critics pit these issues against one another, they are moving on all fronts as if our nation’s recovery and democracy depend on it. They do.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice

“The Biden administration is leaning in on immigration because the tectonic plates of the debate have shifted. 

In defiance of aging conventional wisdom, Biden gets that immigration is a defining and foundational element of the America we aspire to be. Moreover, he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the howling from the right-wing media and political ecosystem. He and his team keep their focus on delivering on their promises, not on wringing their hands over bad faith opposition from bad faith opponents.  

It’s a new day on immigration. It’s time for Congress to respond to the demand for action. It’s time to make real what is patently clear to most of us: immigrants should be respected as full human beings; undocumented immigrants should be formally recognized as the Americans they already are; and refugees should be free.”

See a deep dive on recent American immigration polling and public opinion here.