May 31, 2023

Border security, the issue that largely shaped Donald J. Trump’s victorious 2016 campaign, is back on the national agenda, a potential boost for Mr. Trump — and, for President Biden, a headache with no easy remedy in policy or politics .

The end of a pandemic-era program that allowed officials to quickly deport migrants was expected to attract an additional 7,000 unauthorized persons per day, adding to already record levels of migrants, from Latin America and elsewhere, driven north by poverty and violence and by perceptions of a more welcoming frontier under Mr Biden.

In a televised town hall this week, Trump predicted that Friday would be a “day of infamy” as the policy known as Title 42 that he first introduced came to an end. He used the same frightening rhetoric of his previous campaigns to broadly and imprecisely describe migrants as “released from prisons” and “established institutions”.

The Biden administration announced policies to curb the rise in early February, and so far there have been no signs of disorder since the policy expired. But Mr Trump — along with Republican officials and conservative media outlets — has escalated their years-long attacks on border security in recent days, claiming that Mr Biden has ignored a burgeoning crisis.

Fox News used a countdown clock to observe the end of Title 42 as it aired video footage of a “Fox escape team” of thousands of migrants in a tent camp that one correspondent said are “waiting for Title 42 to drop to cross illegally.”

Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and 2024 presidential candidate, told the far-right outlet Newsmax that what she saw during a border visit was “incredible,” citing cartels smuggling people and fentanyl, the deadly opioid that killed dozens of thousands of Americans and has become a major theme of Republican attacks on Mr Biden’s policies.

“Along with inflation, a border out of control is one of the government’s greatest vulnerabilities,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “If you look at Fox News, there are few other issues that are so important for the federal government to address.” Lifting Title 42, he added, was an issue “wrapped in a nice bow” for Mr. Trump.

White House and Biden campaign officials largely scoffed at this analysis, citing past attempts by Republicans and conservative media to turn caravans of migrants heading for the border into election year crises. For the most part, Mr. Biden himself has avoided drawing attention to the border, with polls showing that immigration motivates Republican voters far more than Democrats.

Yet there is widespread recognition even among Biden’s allies that the perception of chaos on the southern border is a political liability — though strategists are optimistic that by the time the votes are cast in 2024, voters will have moved on to other topics.

The expected wave of migrants comes “at a good time, because it’s not coming in June or May of ’24,” said Matt Barreto, who conducts polls for the Biden White House. “The election will not take place in June ’23. So you will see an extremely well managed process with the resources we have.”

But while the administration has the opportunity to show its handling of the situation as a show of competence, Mr. Biden’s record will come under scrutiny. On his first day in office, he proposed an immigration package that provided a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents, protected so-called Dreamers, and added technology to help secure the southern border. The bill, faced with solid Republican opposition, went nowhere.

As a candidate, Mr Biden had promised not to separate families at the border, as Mr Trump did in 2018 – and which the former president suggested this week would reinstate if elected in 2024. Mr Biden’s more humane message and policies, along with the easing of the Covid-19 pandemic, have led to an increase in people trying to enter the country illegally, contributing to a large increase in border detentions.

Now, with the end of Title 42, the government has introduced stricter asylum rules to turn back those who cross without permission and has sent 1,500 troops on active duty to support border patrol.

And while there was heavy construction along the border earlier this week — on some days more than 11,000 people illegally crossed the southern border and were taken into custody — according to internal agency data obtained by The New York Times, that number fell slightly to less than 10,000 people on Thursday.

But even some Democrats backing Mr. Biden have criticized him for not doing more to control the border and for not emphasizing his policies more forcefully.

“Everyone who works in Democratic politics has been dreading this moment for two years,” said Lanae Erickson, who heads the public opinion and social policy division at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “It’s very clear that Republicans still have the upper hand on immigration and people don’t think Democrats particularly care about securing the border.”

Progressives seem to agree. “They should have undone Title 42 on their first day in office. They didn’t,” said Chris Newman, the legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Los Angeles. “Now they have to do what they should have done on the first day of work, and they are doing it badly.”

Polls show widespread dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of immigration. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this year, only 28 percent of Americans agreed with Biden’s approach to the southern border.

In an April Fox News poll of registered voters, 66 percent of white voters without a college degree said the White House was not tough enough on illegal immigration. A majority of Spanish voters, 55 percent, also said the president was not strong enough.

“Biden won the 2020 election not only because he got big shifts among white college voters, but he also stopped the bleeding among working-class white voters,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “What happens to those voters as he enters 2024 with approval ratings below 40, and then you add on top of that an emerging immigration problem — one that these voters deeply believe matters?”

Other polls favor the administration. In Mr. Barreto’s recent surveys, conducted in seven battlefield states for Immigration Hub, a pro-immigration group, there was widespread support for Mr. Biden’s policies, including reversing Trump-era child separation and developing of roads to citizenship for Dreamers.

Democrats point to recent electoral history to counter predictions that new scenes of disruption at the border will exact a political price. Republicans and their media allies have turned the prospect of migrant caravans approaching the country’s southern border into biennial programs designed to motivate a conservative base. But the Democrats won convincing victories in 2018, Mr Biden won the presidency in 2020 and the party exceeded expectations in last year’s midterm elections.

Part of the problem for the Democrats is that their border policies are more nuanced than the Republicans’ blunt calls to get tough, such as Mr. Trump’s continued focus on building a wall. The Republican approach is fueling the party’s base, while Democrats have put more energy into issues such as abortion rights and the economy, which may motivate them.

Mr Biden is also under pressure in his own party, with centrist Democrats calling for tougher measures and progressives warning of the dangers faced by displaced migrants and pushing for due process for asylum seekers.

“The majority of the American people agree with this,” said Maria Cardona, a longtime Democratic party strategist. “It would be easier to explain if they really explain, and that is that we are for strong border security and humane paths to legalization.”

Jon Seaton, a Republican strategist who works in Arizona, said the latest wave of migrants was putting serious strain on government services in parts of the border state and the issue could play a role in taking Arizona away from Biden in 2024 after he beat Mr. Trump there by the narrowest of margins.

Arizona’s large bloc of independent voters views immigration through a lens that is less ideological and more focused on government competence, Seaton said. “These images aren’t just on Fox News, they’re on local news, they’re pretty ubiquitous,” he said of scenes of people crossing the border filling the streets of US border towns.

“If they see things like what’s happening, that’s really a potential problem for President Biden and his re-election, and for Democrats up and down the ticket.”

Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.