Biden’s Strategy: Help Immigrants in the U.S., but Stop Others From Arriving

There are hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the United States who have been living in the country illegally for years, working and making a living, starting families and sending their children to school. President Biden says they can stay.

And then there are the more recent arrivals, who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers, seeking protection from poverty and persecution. They will have to wait.

Mr. Biden has taken two major actions on immigration this month, expanding legal protections for undocumented spouses of American citizens while also sealing the border to most people seeking asylum in the United States.

Taken together, the decisions put Mr. Biden’s approach to one of the most polarizing issues of the 2024 campaign into sharp focus: He will help immigrants who are already here, but try to keep the border shut to those trying to get in.

The strategy, described by one former White House official as a “border-in vs. border-out” approach, is a reflection of the political complexity of immigration, a top concern for voters of both parties in the 2024 presidential campaign. Polls show that American voters see the situation at the southern border as a problem and that more tend to trust former President Donald J. Trump to handle it than trust Mr. Biden.

Democrats hope that Mr. Biden’s actions this month will help neutralize the issue. Matt A. Barreto, a Biden campaign pollster focusing on Latino politics, said Americans draw a distinction between “long term, undocumented immigrants” and “new arrivals.”

“We see them, and most Americans see them, as totally different,” Mr. Barreto said, adding that voters support immigrants whom they see as “my friend or my uncle who’s been here a long time and is even working or paying taxes and is just trying to get a work permit.”

In recent years, more Democrats have called for the kinds of border security measures the party once denounced under Mr. Trump.

As the number of people crossing the border reached record levels, Mr. Biden has been forced to navigate tricky politics. His decision earlier this year to grant work permits for thousands of new arrivals — an effort to make them less reliant on shelters and other assistance — angered other immigrants who had been waiting for years to be eligible to work.

Mr. Biden’s top aides believe his new policies will appeal to Hispanic voters, many of whom want to see both tougher enforcement and better pathways to citizenship. While polls show some of Mr. Trump’s proposals, including mass deportations, resonate with voters, Mr. Biden’s campaign believes that Republicans are painting every immigrant under too broad of a brush.

The White House has tried to work with Congress on immigration in the past. When Mr. Biden came into office, he tried to establish a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million immigrants and in February tried to push through a bill that would turn away many migrants at the border. Neither passed because of Republican opposition.

Mr. Trump, who has made being tough on immigration a central part of his political identity, has encouraged Republicans not to pass Mr. Biden’s immigration policies. After Mr. Biden’s announcement this week, Republican Speaker Mike Johnson accused him of engaging in “an election-year border charade” and of playing “both sides.”

But earlier this month, as Mr. Biden stood in front of signs saying “securing our border,” he articulated a “simple truth” as he announced major new restrictions on asylum.

“If the United States doesn’t secure our border, there is no limit to the number of people who may try to come here, because there is no better place on the planet than the United States of America,” Mr. Biden said in the East Room of the White House.

Just two weeks later, Mr. Biden entered a much different atmosphere in the same room. This time he joined an enthusiastic crowd of immigrants to announce that he would shield some 500,000 undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens from deportation.

He appeared to acknowledge his balancing act.

“I also know many people in this room also had concerns about steps I’d taken,” Mr. Biden said, referring to the asylum ban. “As president I had to take these actions. Every nation must secure its border, it’s just that simple.”

Mr. Biden used the event to draw a connection to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a popular Obama-era program that shielded hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.

Like Mr. Biden, President Barack Obama tried to pair tough immigration policies with more generous ones. He announced DACA in the middle of a re-election campaign in 2012, at a moment when his enforcement policies earned him the nickname “deporter in chief.”

And while some advocates celebrated Mr. Biden’s policy to protect the undocumented in the United States, they worried for those outside of U.S. borders.

“Access to the asylum system is a fundamental human right,” said Ahilan T. Arulanantham, the co-director for the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the University of California Los Angeles Law School. “It is not too late for Biden to fulfill his campaign promise to restore our asylum system while also creating protections and opportunities for our undocumented neighbors in the U.S.”

Angelo Fernández Hernandéz, a spokesman for the White House, said the Biden administration “has repeatedly taken action, within its authorities, to secure the border, expand lawful pathways, and make our immigration system more fair and more just.”

As Mr. Biden prepares for a debate later this month with Mr. Trump, he plans to emphasize that he is both deterring new arrivals while keeping families in the United States together.

But it remains to be seen if American voters will draw the distinction.

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