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Updated Jun 7, 2024, 1:14pm EDT
politicsNorth America

‘He’s using tools that Donald Trump used’: How Joe Biden became a border hawk

President Joe Biden departs after announcing an executive order on enforcement at the US-Mexico border on June 4, 2024.
Leah Millis/REUTERS
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The Scene

At the time, in the summer of 2019, it was an easy question for Joe Biden. The future president was in Iowa, speaking to the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition, a now-defunct PAC that vetted every major candidate for the Democratic nomination. Shaimaa Aly, an immigrant from Egypt, asked how Biden would end Donald Trump’s “horrible treatment for our asylum seekers” and refugees.

“He’s changed the law on asylum seekers,” Biden said. “He can’t do it.”

This week, Biden changed how asylum-seekers will interact with the law, with an executive order that allows non-citizens to be deported quickly unless they arrive at an official port of entry. Progressives called it a “return to Trump-era policies.” Trump called it “all for show.” The ACLU, which successfully halted Trump’s asylum limits with lawsuits, promised to sue and win again.

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“He’s using tools that Donald Trump used and that we all spoke out against,” Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Semafor. “I hope this will be declared unconstitutional, just as Trump’s was when he tried to do the same thing. But it’s troubling that our Democratic president and some Democrats are endorsing this strategy.”

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David’s view

The long and agonizing climb-down from their 2020 ambitions may be the defining story of the Biden-era Democratic Party. On border policy, the Emma Lazarus mindset of the Trump years has vanished; a president who once summoned his inner Irish poet when talking about asylum seekers has now ordered that migrants “detrimental to the interests of the United States” can be kept out.

“To protect America as a land that welcomes immigrants,” Biden said on Tuesday, “we must first secure the border and secure it now.”

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During his presidency, Trump’s actions to limit immigration and restrict asylum were broadly unpopular, and every faction of the opposition rejected them, from the socialists who wanted to dismantle Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the wealthy suburbanites who raised money for refugee groups.

That backlash was captured in virtually every official policy position Democrats released during the 2020 campaign cycle. Biden’s initial immigration plan asserted that “the US has a responsibility to help our neighbors and partners process and support refugees and asylum seekers.” The party’s unity commission recommendations, written by representatives of the Biden and Bernie Sanders campaigns, declared that “Democrats believe the United States should be a beacon of hope for those who are suffering violence and injustice, which is why we will protect and expand the existing asylum system.” The official Democratic platform echoed the same promise to rebuild “a beacon of hope” as it mentioned asylum for the first time. 

Trump’s framing of the issue is still horrifying to Democrats. They remain comfortable comparing his rhetoric to the words of fascists when he talks about migrants “poisoning the blood” of the country. Biden’s announcement of the new policy included a series of to-be-sures that were basically about Trump: “the Statue of Liberty is not some relic of American history,” and “I will never demonize immigrants,” and (once again) “I will never refer to immigrants as ‘poisoning the blood’ of a country.”

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But three years of stories about migrants surrendering, asking for asylum, and roaming freely until far-off court dates have taken a rough political toll. In polling conducted for Gallup and the Pew Research Center, support for mass deportation has surged since 2020; support for deporting “all” noncitizen migrants jumped from 37% to 50%, driven by Republicans and conservative independents. Polling has also shown Trump winning more support among Latinos while promising mass deportations — sucking the wind out of any argument that tacking left on immigration might win more votes.

The Democrats who embraced Biden’s move this week were usually in tough races — Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, Montana Sen. Jon Tester — and had endorsed bipartisan legislation that would have included the same changes. More wary Democrats could at least excuse that legislation as the price Republicans were demanding as a condition for approving more aid to Ukraine. Trump’s public opposition helped kill that bill, forcing Biden to act unilaterally, or not at all.

Biden has been cornered on this issue by his Republican opponents in more subtle ways, too. The promise to humanely welcome asylum seekers was always premised on a surge of resources necessary to process a historic number of arrivals at the Southern border — money and manpower the GOP has blocked.

Democrats have not entirely flipped on immigration; the party still favors work status and legalization for noncitizens. But they now find themselves with little leverage to demand those policies in a trade with Republicans while the border weighs on Biden’s polls.

“We are where we are,” California Democratic Rep. Robert Garcia told Semafor. “The president’s doing the best he can with having no Republican support. We also have to have immigration reform, but it’s not gonna get brought up. So I think we have to be honest about the reality.”

Progressives who worked on the 2020 platform, while not abandoning Biden, are expressing frustration that the new policy is so far from what he promised.

“There is a right-wing, white Christian nationalist, xenophobic movement in America and its nominee for president is Donald Trump,” said Analilia Mejia, Co-Executive Director of Center for Popular Democracy, an appointee to the unity commission. “President Biden is better served by differentiating himself from that hate.”

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The View From Immigration Hawks

Republicans have given Biden no credit for his switch, and the White House didn’t expect any. “The Biden announcement might be the first small stirring of acknowledgement on the left of center that asylum is, potentially, a problem,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies. “Liberals have been mugged by the reality of open borders.”

Trump bad-mouthed the Biden shift from the get-go, initially ignoring the details and saying it was all about the president’s vulnerability in their upcoming debate. He’s since focused on one provision of the order — exempting “unaccompanied minors” from the count of daily border crossings. At a Thursday rally in Phoenix, he labeled Biden’s action “pro-child trafficking” and led the crowd in a chant of “bullshit.”

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Notable

  • Previously in Semafor, Joseph Zeballos-Roig and Kadia Goba talked to more progressives who were furious about the Biden order. “We shouldn’t fall into the trap that Republicans have set for us,” said Texas Rep. Greg Casar, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
  • In The New York Times, former Obama and Biden immigration adviser Andrea R. Flores urges the president to change the debate and “lead his party back to a time when fighting for the undocumented was a major policy priority alongside border security.”
  • In the Liberal Patriot, Ruy Teixeira chastises Biden critics on the left who want to stop the executive order: “What part of, “We need to get a lot tougher on border security,” don’t these Democrats understand?”
  • For MSNBC, Dara Lind speculates that the order may backfire once fully implemented. “It’s quite possible that border numbers will drop over the summer. It’s harder to imagine that they won’t rise at any point between now and, say, November.”

Joseph Zeballos-Roig contributed reporting.

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