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Biden’s big immigration gamble

The post-pandemic years have been a perplexing time in immigration politics. Border crossings spiked after an early pandemic-era lull in 2020. That increase coincided with the first year of a new Democratic president, who sought to be more welcoming to immigr…

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Biden’s big immigration gamble
Biden’s big immigration gamble
The post-pandemic years have been a perplexing time in immigration politics. Border crossings spiked after an early pandemic-era lull in 2020. That increase coincided with the first year of a new Democratic president, who sought to be more welcoming to immigrants after campaigning against Donald Trump’s harshness. And somewhere along the way, the public’s opinion of immigration, both legal and not, began to sour. That’s the context behind President Joe Biden’s shifts to the center on the subject this spring and summer, particularly when he announced new restrictions that make life more difficult for asylum seekers. But now, Biden seems to be swinging in the opposite direction: outlining a plan to offer legal protections to the undocumented spouses of American citizens — a win for immigrants, and the political left. The plan responds to longstanding demands made by pro-immigrant activists, tamping down some of the progressive and left-flank criticism he’s gotten for that rightward pivot on immigration he and other Democrats have felt like they have to take. The move is both a balancing act of politics and a test case for policy: Is there a limited, humanitarian reform that can unite progressive and moderate Democrats, win support from a hesitant public, and provide political cover for Biden if he has to keep moving to the center on immigration more broadly? The new policy tries to appease Biden’s liberal and progressive critics Using something called a “parole-in-place” program, the new policy would allow the noncitizen spouses and stepchildren of American citizens to apply for permanent residency and work permits (known as green cards). As my colleague Nicole Narea explains, the policy would allow these applicants to remain in the US during that time, instead of having to leave the country for 10 years as existing rules require. Permanent residency would then offer a pathway to citizenship. The plan stands to affect about half a million immigrants living in the US without legal status. That’s true even when one looks at some of the plan’s fine print. For example, spouses must have been living in the US for at least a decade and have been married to a US citizen as of June 17, before the announcement was made. They must also “not pose a threat to public safety.” The announcement was timed to align with a White House commemoration of the launch of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative 12 years ago. DACA, a directive and program that extended protections from deportation to young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, has faced over a decade of Supreme Court challenges and lawsuits but survived so far — though activist groups have long sought for those protections to be codified into law. Those efforts have lost steam since the start of the Trump and Biden eras, but many of these groups have welcomed this policy announcement as a much-needed victory given the rightward shift of the public and both political parties. “We recognize this moment as a victory for our movement, a step in the right direction for President Biden, and a recommitment to continue to fight for the day where ALL people have the dignity and freedom to stay and freedom to thrive,” Greisa Martinez Rosas, the executive director of the pro-immigrant United We Dream, said in a statement released with commendations from an array of other national and local activist groups. Similarly, many of the congressional Democrats who criticized Biden for his recent moves to curtail the right to asylum and enforce border controls more strongly are also commending the president. It’s also an example of how Biden is performing a tenuous balancing act The announcement is also a reflection of the times we’re living in: Immigration politics have become deeply toxic for Democrats. Republicans have seized on the issue since Biden’s presidency began, constituents have called for more moderate policy in battleground districts and border communities, and the general attitude toward immigration has become much more negative. Biden was responding to those political realities when he announced the reform of the asylum system in June, which gave border officials the ability to shut down the processing of asylum requests when daily border crossing numbers reached 2,500. Those realities also likely drove his decision to barter with congressional Republicans over an immigration and border bill this winter, which would have given him authority to shut down the southern border and ramp up enforcement. That bill, specifically, went nowhere after Trump intervened to persuade House Republicans against supporting it. Trump wanted to deny Biden a legislative victory, and — in a demonstration of how the politics of this issue divide Democrats and unite Republicans — wanted to keep the issue in play during the 2024 election. The public is also waffling. Plenty of issue polling shows independents and various kinds of moderate voters are still concerned about immigration levels. Plenty of voters trust Trump over Biden on immigration, or are shifting that way, including Latino voters. And more voters are becoming open to more hardline immigration policies, like building a border wall, restricting asylum, or deputizing the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants who pose public safety risks. Biden’s policy announcement responds to these dynamics: He can continue to enforce tougher asylum rules and be more aggressive about the southern border, responding to the demands of a public who wants the country and its leaders to be more restrictive on immigration. It also responds to demands from parts of his base — progressives, the more left-leaning members of his party in the House and Senate — and gives influential activist groups and organizers something substantive to pitch to progressive-minded voters. And the combination of policy announcements reflects the idiosyncratic opinions many Americans have on immigration policy, like generally being more open to those immigrants who have lived here for a while and still being positive about immigrants as individuals, while still having the perception that undocumented immigrants are threats to public safety and public order, or being wary about their impact on the economy (which, to be sure, is generally positive). But the combination of moves seems aimed to shore up support within his party, to satiate the concerns of those swing voters wary about immigration, and to stump Republicans. At the same time, there’s also a chance that these policy announcements end up causing the opposite effect: of moderate, independent, and swing voters seeing this as another soft-on-the-border policy from a president beholden to his left flank, and where progressives and left-leaning voters still see his other border policies as being too cruel.

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