Updated Jun 4, 2024 - Politics & Policy

How politics, timing shaped Biden's border gambit

Photo illustration of a collage with President Biden, concertina wire, the southern border wall and a group of migrants.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Agencia Press South, John Moore, Kevin Dietsch, Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden announced an executive order today that will allow him to dramatically limit asylum claims at the Southwest border, granting himself the power that congressional Republicans twice have denied him.

Why it matters: Five months before the election — and in a crucial month for the campaign — Biden is determined to neutralize what could be his biggest political vulnerability against former President Trump: immigration.

  • He's also using the power of the presidency to stare down his critics in Congress, confident that voters want to see action — not just rhetoric — on the border.
  • Biden's willing to risk a defeat in the courts and anger from his party's progressive base for taking the dramatic action — even without the $14 billion the White House argued for months was necessary for a lasting solution.

Zoom in: The order will allow border officials to rapidly turn back migrants — without giving them a chance at asylum — when illegal border crossings reach an average of 2,500 a day.

  • There have been an average of 3,700 illegal crossings a day over the last three weeks, according to internal stats obtained by Axios — so the order could go into effect immediately.
  • Crossings between legal ports of entry actually have plummeted from December's record high of 250,000 encounters and have remained relatively stable ever since.
  • U.S. officials largely credit stepped-up enforcement by Mexico.

Between the lines: The timing of Biden's order is likely guided by several factors — some on the ground, others political.

  • It hasn't happened yet, but crossings tend to rise in the summer months, just when voters' attention to the presidential race will be increasing.
  • Biden's first debate against Trump is June 27, and the ex-president is relishing the chance to skewer Biden's border policies face to face.
  • The order comes less than two weeks after a calculated move by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to clear a path for Biden. Schumer put Republicans in a position to kill a bipartisan border deal on the Senate floor — for a second time.
  • It also comes two days after the elections in Mexico. Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico's president-elect, has indicated she'll continue her predecessor's policy of working with U.S. authorities.

Zoom out: Biden's decision is an acknowledgment of a 2024 political reality: Unchecked immigration has become deeply unpopular across all demographics in the U.S., with a slight majority of Americans now backing mass deportations, as Trump has proposed.

  • Biden is rooting his action in the same section of the federal code that Trump used for his own border restrictions and his temporary "Muslim ban."
  • Biden officials bristle at those comparisons and note that his approach will include some humanitarian exemptions.
  • Still, it's another remarkable shift in American politics.

Many Democrats and independents who saw Trump's policies as draconian now have joined Republicans in demanding a tougher response to the unprecedented migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • Biden came into office vowing to undo Trump's harsh legacy on immigration — much of which he did.
  • Then came back-to-back years of record border crossings, migrant camps, cries for federal help from city leaders struggling with new populations — and a tough rematch against Trump, whose campaign has tapped into the anger over illegal immigration.

What they're saying: Biden's expected move already is receiving pushback from some critics within his party.

  • The administration "should be helping the public understand why border numbers have dropped, not send the message that the border isn't secure and needs yet another ineffective asylum restriction," former Biden and Obama immigration official Andrea Flores tweeted.
  • "This should not be the starting point for the next round of negotiations, because there will be some at some point," Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) told reporters Monday.
  • "And this should definitely not be the new Democratic position."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the executive order has been announced.

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