The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats’ immigration policies are a gift to Republicans

Migrants cross the Rio Grande River near the Del Rio-Acuña Port of Entry in Mexico on Sept. 20. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg)

The image of thousands of Haitian refugees huddling under a bridge in Del Rio, Tex., is forcing illegal immigration back into the national consciousness. That’s bad news for President Biden and his fellow Democrats, as this is a major political vulnerability for them.

Apprehensions on America’s southern border are at a 21-year high. More than 1 million people have been arrested for illegally entering the United States since March, and arrests have exceeded 150,000 in each of the past six months. Moreover, apprehensions have been highest in the summer months, even though arrests typically plummet during the hot season. This has never happened before in U.S. history.

One might think that Biden would try to stem the flow. After all, he ran as Uncle Joe from Scranton, the man who viscerally understands the needs of working-class Americans. So he should know that the working class needs tight labor markets to thrive. Without that, businesses will always keep wages down for the least skilled workers, much as they have done over most of the past two decades. The people flowing into the country have to work. That sudden influx cannot be good for native workers.

But the Democrats’ approach to immigration under Biden has betrayed this common sense. While the administration has exhibited a tough approach to the Haiti crisis, flying many back to Haiti, it has taken few tangible steps to address the larger issue. People who enter the United States illegally have still been released without supervision into the country. And Biden’s announcement Monday that he will raise the cap on the number of refugees allowed to settle to 125,000 shows that his priority is helping people come here, not protecting the people who already live here.

Democrats in Congress display the same warped priorities. They had hoped the Senate parliamentarian would allow them to sneak a provision in their $3.5 trillion spending plan providing a path to citizenship for those who already live illegally in the United States. But the parliamentarian predictably ruled that the gambit would contravene the rules governing the budget reconciliation procedure. Now, some Democrats are pursuing the same result with different tactics, seeking to change the date by which people had to enter the country to qualify for the existing amnesty, passed in 1986. No congressional Democratic leader is publicly attaching anywhere near the same significance to controlling border crossings.

This tone-deafness is highly unpopular. Biden’s job approval on immigration is only 36 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. That is even lower than his approval on foreign policy, which is shocking considering the public attention given to the administration’s scandalously inept withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden’s inability, or unwillingness, to put Americans first when it comes to immigration is the single biggest political problem he faces.

Progressives can’t credibly claim that opposition to Democrats’ immigration policy is a simply a case of racial resentment. A recent Economist/YouGov poll shows that Hispanics also disapprove of Biden’s handling of immigration. A Politico/Morning Consult poll from late August found that only half of Hispanics approved of Biden’s overall performance. These trends are even more pronounced in Texas, where the vast majority of illegal crossings occur. A recent poll found that 47 percent of Texas Latinos disapprove of Biden’s handling of immigration at the border, while only 29 percent approve. That may explain why 54 percent disapprove of his overall performance.

None of this should surprise people. Hispanics are disproportionally working-class and are among the most likely to have to compete with newcomers for work. They also tend to live in the neighborhoods that are most likely to be upended by a sudden influx of immigrants. They are reacting to the surge in border crossings the same way any other group would: They want their leaders to make it stop. Yet the Democratic Party and its leader are ignoring their pleas.

Democratic analyst David Shor has been warning about this type of reaction for months. He notes that White progressives hold views well to the left of working-class voters of all races on a host of issues, especially cultural ones and immigration. Shor also notes that White liberal college graduates, while a small share of the electorate, are the people who staff Democratic campaigns and congressional offices and donate to the party’s campaigns. Their priorities shape the party’s, but they do not shape those of the voters the party relies on. The result: Working-class voters increasingly see the GOP as the party that stands up for the values they care about the most.

Politicians can’t always be relied on to act in the national interest, but they usually can be expected to act in their own political interest. The fact that Biden and the Democrats are ignoring both on immigration is a huge gift to Republicans — who will eagerly accept it.