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Why President Biden Should Lean In on Immigration

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With the arrival of President Biden’s first 100 days in office and ahead of his Wednesday night address to Congress, analysts and observers this week are taking stock of the Biden administration’s record and plans moving forward. In contrast to issues such as the President’s handling of COVID-19 and the economy, the Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that President Biden’s approval on the “immigration situation at the U.S./Mexico border” is underwater, with 37% approving and 52% disapproving.

While some political observers might be tempted to counsel that President Biden and Democrats should therefore avoid discussing immigration or attempting to move forward any pro-immigrant legislation, here’s why that’s the exact wrong way to address immigration and the current moment. 

As E.J. Dionne writes in a column assessing the first 100 days, President Biden “clearly fears that Republicans are gaining traction on immigration. Despite the political challenges, dealing with it comprehensively remains a far better course than a series of defensive postures.” Here are a few reminders why:

  • Lean in and define the debate – including the overwhelmingly popular citizenship provisions: Politico’s Transition Playbook recently reported, “Biden’s pollster to Dems: Don’t be afraid to talk immigration.” Research conducted by John Anzalone, “one of Joe Biden’s main pollsters in 2020,” points to a Democratic strategy of leaning in on immigration, rather than backing off. Here’s how Politico writes up the Anzalone advice: “His conclusion: Democrats shouldn’t be scared of talking about immigration. In fact, they may want to talk about it more. Politicians ‘think of immigration as a sensitive or a wedge issue,’ but that’s wrong, Anazlone told Transition Playbook of his briefing, which included pro-immigrant advocacy groups like FWD.us. ‘Some of this stuff has such incredibly high support and bipartisan support that, quite frankly, politicians kind of lag behind it.’ His poll, conducted last month for the centrist think tank Center Forward, found that 74 percent of likely voters supported legislation that would create an earned path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants known as ‘Dreamers’; those granted temporary protected status; farmworkers; and other essential workers.” The Anzalone polling deck and key findings are available online at Center Forward’s website here.
  • “Solutions anchored in our values” – the American majority supports Democrats’ vision for a humane and orderly immigration system. A strong majority of the public supports 1) an America that welcomes immigrants and refugees from every corner of the globe through a safe, regulated and humane system; and 2) legislative breakthroughs that formally recognize deeply-rooted undocumented immigrants as the Americans they already are. Yes, the public wants to understand that there is a plan in place to deal with the crisis in Central America and the related impact on our southern border in an orderly and humane manner. But the public also has moved sharply in a pro-immigrant direction in recent years and overwhelmingly supports citizenship for the undocumented, with even a majority of Republicans supporting legalization for Dreamers (see an immigration public opinion deep dive here). And the Biden coalition, including Democratic-leaning independents, reject Republicans’ “get tough and keep ‘em out” stance in favor of Democrats’ “fair and humane” approach to immigration. In poll after poll Democrats win big in head-to-heads on these two contrasting frames. 
  • Republicans and right-wing media will fill the vacuum if Democrats are afraid to discuss and define their immigration vision. The right wing media ecosystem and Republican members of Congress are cranking the “border crisis” issue up every day and in every way. Yes, too many in the mainstream media have adopted the right-wing framing. Yes, too many are calling the border a crisis when the crisis is in Central America. And yes, too many are making the silly claim that the President’s “messaging” accounts for the increase in arrivals. But no, these tactical challenges need not overwhelm us. Actually, the opportunity is huge. If the President holds his nerve and resists the reflex to use cruelty to deal with political pressures, he can forge a workable immigration system that is, at once, both orderly and humane. 

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

For Democrats, the immigration debate is not about numbers anchored in fears. It’s about solutions anchored in values. Step back and you’ll get run over. But lean in and you’ll win. 

The multiracial majority that elected Joe Biden strongly supports his vision for an orderly and humane approach that modernizes a broken system. They strongly oppose Republican support for re-upping Trump’s cruelty and chaos. 

But the public needs to know what those solutions are. A defensive posture cedes the playing field to Republicans and Foxlandia. They are determined to define the debate in terms of numbers and fears. We have a different vision, one that upholds our values and advances real solutions.

In his first hundred days on immigration, President Biden and his team got a lot right and got some things wrong. But the more important question is this: what will the President and his team do the next 100 days? Legislative solutions that would put millions on pathways to citizenship will either break through or fall short. Decisions regarding the border, Central America, asylum, Title 42 and TPS will be made in the next 100 days. 

Go big, Mr. President. Lean in. Your coalition is behind you. The majority of Americans want what you want. Make it so. Make this the year.