On his first day as president, Biden sent Congress an immigration bill that included a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Three years and more than 6 million border apprehensions later, Biden is advocating for a much different legislative proposal, one that leans squarely into border enforcement and excludes any pathway to citizenship.
Coupled with his surprise assertion last month that he was prepared to “shut down the border right now,” the president’s embrace of what he has called the “toughest and fairest set of border reforms in decades” illustrates how immigration has driven the most dramatic political evolution of his presidency, to the point that he’s now echoing the seal-the-border rhetoric of his predecessor Donald Trump.
Behind Biden’s shift, allies say, is a realization that immigration has become one of his greatest vulnerabilities — with images of chaos at the border that have hampered his presidency, weighed down his poll numbers and threatened to thwart his reelection bid.
“It’s become this horrific issue that President Biden cannot just ignore — he’s got to deal with it,” said Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary and White House chief of staff who currently serves on the Department of Homeland Security’s advisory council. “Presidents are elected to deal with crisis. And I think, in many ways, his transformation on the issue has been largely the result of the growing crisis at the border.”
Throughout his term, Biden has enmeshed himself in the minutia of migration patterns and border activity, requesting details and data about specific ports of entry, according to a former White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Other officials have said Biden and his former chief of staff Ron Klain would track the monthly border apprehensions, just as they monitored other statistics seen as pivotal to the president’s electoral prospects, including gas prices and the gross domestic product.
On Sunday, Biden put out a lengthy statement expressing strong support for the long-negotiated border security deal that would require him to block most migrants from seeking asylum in the United States when border crossings are particularly high, while also expanding legal immigration in more limited ways. A week earlier he had suggested that if the bill passed he would use its new presidential authorities to shut down the border on “the day I sign the bill.” Those moves are the culmination of complex political and policy challenges that have bedeviled his administration, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former administration officials, lawmakers, experts and activists, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Trump are moving to stifle the bipartisan bill, with some Republicans fearful that passing it may neutralize a powerful campaign issue for the party, but Biden’s political positioning on immigration promises to be a key matter of debate in the election.
While many immigration advocates were stunned to hear a Democratic president sound willing — and even eager — to “shut down” the border, there have long been flashes of Biden’s more pro-enforcement stance on toward illegal migration.
During the 2020 presidential primary, Biden declined to embrace some of the progressive positions that some Democrats had advocated in response to Trump’s policies. Shortly before taking office, Biden and his top aides warned that they would take their time before reversing some of Trump’s border policies, with the president-elect asserting that he did not want to see “2 million people on our border.”
While he paused deportations and halted construction of Trump’s border wall on his first day in office, Biden opted to keep in place some of his predecessor’s border restrictions, including the pandemic-era Title 42 provision that allowed for quick expulsions of migrants.
Immigration activists and progressive lawmakers who criticized Biden’s early embrace of parts of Trump’s border strategy would repeatedly find themselves at odds with a president who they initially viewed as an ally. The president’s pledge to immediately shut down an overwhelmed border — something Trump has vowed to do on the first day of his term — has further fueled that sentiment among some of the advocates who backed Biden in 2020.
“I’m a supporter of the president, but I think that he made a big mistake with that statement,” said Rep. Greg Casar, a progressive Democrat from Texas. “The president’s statement reflects not just bad policy, but bad politics. … We need to be creating legal pathways for migration, not accepting Trump-style policies.”
Biden’s aides say the president has been consistent in his approach, highlighting his long history of supporting border enforcement as a senator on the judiciary committee and a vice president who worked with Northern Triangle countries. The president has also shown a willingness to make compromises to achieve bipartisan consensus, his allies say, crediting him for being willing to negotiate with Republicans on a thorny issue in an election year.
“While President Biden presses ahead with the same mainstream values he has always fought for — a secure border, treating migrants with dignity, and repairing a broken immigration system — Speaker Johnson just wildly reversed the position he’d held for 6 years in an attempt to block a bipartisan border security deal in the name of politics,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates.
Biden himself has tried to framed the debate as a matter of principle over politics, calling out the GOP for shifting positions in recent weeks.
“Now, House Republicans have to decide. Do they want to solve the problem? Or do they want to keep playing politics with the border?” he said in a statement Sunday after the bill was released. “I’ve made my decision. I’m ready to solve the problem. I’m ready to secure the border. And so are the American people.”
Unlike his original statement backing the deal, Biden did not reiterate Sunday an eagerness to shut down the border. Still, aides said the White House would push hard to get the bill — which also includes funding for Ukraine and Israel — through Congress, where it faces long odds due to opposition from Republicans and some Democrats.
The politics of immigration have always been fraught, but the record number of migrants crossing the border under Biden’s watch has made the issue a top concern for many voters — and, in a change from four years ago, it is Biden’s record rather than Trump’s that has garnered the most scrutiny.
As Biden campaigned for the presidency in 2020, he sought to appeal to voters who wished for a sharp pivot away from the harshness of Trump’s presidency, particularly on immigration. He berated Trump for separating families and denigrating migrants, pledging that his own handling of the border would honor America’s tradition as a haven for people fleeing persecution.
Even as he was appealing to the Hispanic and suburban voters that would help propel him into office, Biden was well aware of the political minefield immigration had become since Trump first rode the issue into office in 2016 with a “build the wall” pitch that appealed to White working-class voters, allies said.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), fresh off a 2018 reelection victory against a Trump-backed, border-focused candidate, advised Biden in 2020 not to neglect the anxieties of White voters who liked Trump’s policies, including on immigration. Casey encouraged Biden to emphasize his support for border security while also railing against the harsher components of Trump’s immigration policy.
Balancing those two sentiments, which aides say comported with Biden’s long-standing views on immigration and border security, became both a governing philosophy and a political headache as the migrant crisis took hold from the earliest months of Biden’s term.
As the president tried to advance a carrot-and-stick approach — offering new legal pathways for migrants to reach the United States while enhancing penalties to discourage illegal immigration — a fierce debate was playing out among his aides over whether he should emphasize the carrot or the stick. Some of Biden’s more liberal advisers called on him to show more compassion to the suffering of struggling migrants and refugees. But others within his circle, including then-domestic policy adviser Susan Rice advocated taking a harder line to discourage an influx.
There was little time to hold philosophical debates. Migration at the Southern border — driven in part by global instability and a tight U.S. labor market — began soaring toward record levels early in Biden’s presidency, with thousands of Central American children arriving in the spring of 2021. They would be followed by waves of migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and elsewhere, at times overwhelming the capacity of border officials. As the images of chaos circulated and Biden’s poll numbers slipped, the president was confronted with a reality that many of his more balanced efforts to address the problem had not worked as planned.
He also faced relentless attacks from Republicans over the issue, as well as a Congress that rebuffed his calls for more funding to respond to the emergency. In March of 2021, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) traveled to the El Paso, and declared the situation “a Biden border crisis.” Such political pressure would only intensify over the ensuing years, with Republican governors busing migrants to overwhelm Democratic-led cities and GOP presidential candidates jointly slamming Biden on border-adjacent issues such as fentanyl deaths and homelessness.
Politics aside, Biden had little choice but to pivot in response to the realities on the ground at the border, said Cecilia Muñoz, a top official on Biden’s transition team.
“I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years and the pressure at the border is unlike anything we’ve seen before, by a lot,” said Muñoz, who advised president Barack Obama on immigration as White House domestic policy director. “And so, I see it as a reflection of the circumstances more than I see it as a shift on his part.”
But supporters and critics alike have taken note of his new tone on the border, the most stringent of his long career.
“If that bill were the law today, I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly,” the president said at a Jan. 27 campaign event in South Carolina.
Biden was referring to a trigger mechanism in the Senate bill that would allow the the president to effectively close down the border if unauthorized border crossings reach 5,000 on average over the course of a week, or 8,500 on a particular day.
Polls indicate that immigration is one of Biden’s worst issues among voters, and a growing number of Americans rank is as a top priority. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found immigration was tied with the economy as the second-most urgent issue for voters, after “preserving democracy.” Only 28 percent of respondents approved of Biden’s handling of the border, with nearly two thirds disapproving, the poll found.
Some of the president’s defenders have pointed to the president’s past actions cracking down on asylum, expediting removals of migrants and implementing other restrictions as a sign that he is willing to take the heat from parts of his liberal base to tackle the challenge. His decision to offer a full-throated endorsement of a Senate proposal that would force the border closed when it is overwhelmed is about policy, not politics, said Muñoz.
“I don’t think it’s a policy formulation to love, and I’m not sure that it’s a policy formulation that he loves,” she said. “But it is, I think, a product of the moment that we’re in.”
Maria Sacchetti, Nick Miroff and Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.