How Biden risks losing in 2024 over failure to stop the migrant surge

Immigration is shaping up to be a major issue in the 2024 presidential campaign — and that’s bad news for President Biden’s re-election prospects.

To have a fighting chance at a second term, Biden must balance reassuring swing voters of his commitment to border security first and foremost while supporting the permissive immigration policy the left demands.

A June Harvard-Harris poll found immigration is a top-two concern of voters nationally yet is Biden’s weakest issue — even worse than inflation and crime.

Just 35% of registered voters — and only 28% of independents — approve of the president’s handling of immigration, down 3 points since May and 5 points since April. 

This is despite the ostensible drop in illegal migrant crossings at the southern border — from 10,000 to 3,500 per day — in the six weeks since Title 42 ended.

The Biden administration replaced the Trump-era public-health rule with a Band-Aid policy that pairs punitive deterrence measures with the opening of limited legal pathways for asylum seekers.

Biden has touted the decline, but the official numbers don’t tell the full story.

With the opening of more “legal” pathways, “illegal” migrations have decreased with these same entrants now deemed “legal.”

Yet the eligibility of asylum grantees remains questionable, as the administration is using a flawed and untested phone app to admit 40,000 asylum seekers per month.

Migrants are put on a bus after crossing the Rio Grande River in Eagle Pass, Texas
Despite a big drop in illegal migrant crossings at the southern border since Title 42 ended, voters do not approve of Biden’s handling of immigration.

Illegal crossings also remain very high by historical standards — more than double Trump administration numbers – and White House officials worry that conditions at the border could soon deteriorate further. These concerns are pronounced in light of the lawsuits the new policy faces.

In addition to these practical and legal challenges, the new policy has done little to help Biden neutralize this politically toxic issue.

Blue cities losing faith

Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. recently decried the “humanitarian crisis” that has unfolded “because of the understanding” that “we have an open border.”

Though Kennedy’s chances of unseating the sitting president are low, his criticisms strike a responsive chord across the political spectrum, including with many Democrats.

Democrat-ruled cities — such as New York, Denver, Philadelphia and Washington, DC — are being overrun by an influx of migrants.

This chaos poses a unique political risk to Democrats, as it has become emblematic of the administration’s failure to contain the border.

Further, it has caused an intraparty rift, with New York’s Democratic mayor, Eric Adams, whose city has spent more than $1.2 billion on migrant relief, accusing the Biden administration of “turn[ing] its back.”

Biden aides fear that Kennedy’s and Adams’ criticisms will weaken the president ahead of the general election, where he’ll likely face former President Donald Trump.

These worries are well-founded in light of recent polling, which undercuts the idea Trump would be easily beatable — he leads Biden in the 2024 presidential horse race, per RealClearPolitics.

Trump also has a clear advantage on immigration: Nearly half of voters (47%) believe the US immigration system has worsened under Biden, while a plurality (44%) say it improved under Trump, according to Morning Consult data.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump is leading Joe Biden in many polls.

There is a real risk that Trump and Republicans systematically exploit the border issue to their advantage in 2024 — enough to potentially win the presidency and, more likely, the US Senate — especially if the crisis worsens further.

In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman urged Biden to “out-Trump Trump on immigration” by doubling down on border security to make Democrats “own” the issue. Indeed, Trump’s lead over Biden necessitates this approach.

Though Biden faces the critical challenge of how to toughen border security without further enraging progressives, who have blasted the president’s post-Title 42 measure and publicly called on him to reconsider.

Don’t count on Congress

There is zero chance the closely divided Congress will heed Biden’s call to pass a once-in-a-generation overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws — thus the president must, at the very least, take control of the narrative. 

This means, most important, owning the issue of border security — by strictly enforcing current laws, calling for more physical barriers, tightening legal pathways for asylum seekers and imposing harsher consequences for illegal entrants. 

At the same time, Biden should continue advocating a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers while underscoring to progressives that securing the border is a prerequisite for expanding legal immigration and ensuring migrants with substantiated fears of persecution are processed.

Battleground border and near-border states will be in play in 2024 absent this approach, which worked well in the 2022 midterms for Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly in Arizona and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada.

It’s a difficult balance to strike on an issue that has vexed every modern-day president. But without attempting it, Biden increases his chances of becoming a one-term president.

Douglas Schoen was a senior adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign, a White House adviser (1994-2000) and an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2000 US Senate campaign. Andrew Stein, a Democrat, served as New York City Council president, 1986-94.

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