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Politicians on all sides campaign on restricting immigration

Voters dislike immigration, especially when it is unauthorized. That’s pushing all politicians to respond.

- June 20, 2024
US border wall under construction in Arizona, a priority of  Donald Trump to stop immigration to the United States.
U.S. border wall under construction in Arizona in 2020 (cc) Gillfoto, via Wikimedia Commons.

Many observers have been dismayed, if not surprised, by the Biden administration’s recent executive order to limit asylum claims at the border. Americans have come to expect such restrictive measures from Republicans, not Democrats. 

So why did Biden introduce this new policy? He now faces criticism from his own party. And the border restrictions have little chance of appeasing Republican opponents. To understand Biden’s possible motivations, it is useful to look at the broader political landscape. In upcoming U.K. elections, for instance, the Labour Party has also taken a surprisingly restrictive campaign stance on immigration. 

What’s pushing politicians and parties on the left on both sides of the Atlantic to be more hawkish on immigration? In two words: public opinion. A bigger question now, however, is whether the Biden administration’s response will pay off in November’s U.S. elections.

Biden’s new restrictions on asylum seekers 

On June 4, 2024, President Biden issued a presidential proclamation restricting asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border. This new executive order aims to deter illegal crossings by suspending the entry of people without documentation or prior appointments at official ports of entry. A week of high average daily border apprehensions will trigger the suspension. If the average number of border apprehensions subsides somewhat, U.S. authorities can ease the suspension.

The new plan seems to have strong popular support. But this policy has been quite controversial among political elites, including some Democratic and Republican congressmen. For many on the political left, the order mirrors Trump-era restrictions on the legal right to claim asylum, raising significant humanitarian concerns. And those on the political right simply see the policy as insufficient – and too late to be effective.

A number of immigration policy experts argue that the new policy will not improve the U.S. border situation. According to the American Immigration Council, the order won’t enhance border security – but may lead to unnecessary hardships for asylum seekers. Dara Lind, a senior fellow at the council, suggests that the policy might backfire, creating more problems down the line. What’s missing, she argues, are the additional resources needed to process migrants or their asylum claims.

The logic of anti-immigration politics

The upcoming July 4 U.K. elections may provide unlikely insights into Biden’s motivations. Britain’s Labour Party, despite a significant polling lead, has decided to campaign heavily on cutting immigration. Labour’s campaign platform mentions securing the borders, as well as bringing down both illegal “small boat” immigration across the Channel and legal immigration of foreign workers. Such a restrictive approach is typically a signature policy of the Conservative party. During their first debate, Labour leader Keir Starmer even attacked Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the incumbent Conservative leader, for being “the most liberal prime minister we’ve ever had on immigration.” 

Similar to Biden’s order, Labour’s priorities have proved quite controversial among even pro-Labour business elites, academics, and immigration experts. Many feel betrayed by the Labour Party, which could have presented a much more positive vision of immigration, given the party’s significant lead in the upcoming elections. Unlike the U.S. scenario, the Labour Party isn’t in power. So it is unclear what, if anything, Labour could or would actually do on immigration policy if it’s the winning party next month. 

Still, there is a clear political logic to Labour’s and Biden’s choice to take a restrictive stance as part of their campaigns. By promising to reduce unwanted immigration, Democrats and the Labour Party hope to attract voters who are concerned about immigration – and signal moderation to all those who are undecided for other reasons. Such an approach may also reassure moderate voters that left-of-center parties can tackle tough immigration challenges. And it may also help highlight the inability of their opponents to do so. This is especially true given that some moderate voters may dislike the other policies or be otherwise disillusioned with their right-of-center candidates.

Immigration is an increasingly hot topic

More generally, many people in both the U.S. and the U.K. dislike unauthorized immigration. As a result, they tend to vote for anti-immigration parties when the issue becomes salient, and that’s where we are now. Mainstream politicians – including most of those in the Democratic and Labour parties – have to adapt and respond to this reality by explicitly campaigning on the issue of immigration control to retain voter support and avoid public backlash. As we’ve just seen, this dynamic may force even politicians on the left who appear to be winning – like Labour leader Keir Starmer – to adopt a restrictive stance to gain voter trust.

However, the bigger question is whether this strategy will pay off. Political scientists point out that left and center parties that cater to anti-immigrant sentiment may not actually perform better at the polls. As some put it, “You cannot out-Farage Nigel Farage,” a reference to Reform UK’s controversial leader. When anti-immigration voters can choose their “original” politician or party of preference, they are unlikely to vote for a mainstream copycat acting out of political strategy. As a result, the approach of adopting a more restrictive immigration policy risks alienating core supporters without gaining the trust of voters who are deeply skeptical of immigration.

So, while adopting restrictive stances might seem pragmatic, it can backfire by eroding the party’s principles and alienating its base. Ultimately, echoing this type of populist rhetoric remains a risky gamble and it may or may not yield the desired electoral benefits. But we’ll soon see if Labour’s pledge to cut immigration resonates with voters in key constituencies, robbing the Conservatives of their traditional advantage on this issue.

What does this all mean for Biden and ways to improve immigration policy?

Back in the U.S., it is important to keep in mind that restrictive policies are popular among voters – especially policies that explicitly aim to advance the national interest and reduce chaos along the U.S. border. In this respect, regardless of what immigration policy experts may think about the merits of Biden’s order, it will likely be politically beneficial to the current administration. Indeed, according to the latest CBS News Poll, 70% of voters approve of Biden’s executive order, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and moderates.

A cynic may rightly view these developments as yet another instance of vulnerable immigrants becoming victims of electoral politics. Some call Biden’s order the most restrictive immigration policy in decades – and certainly the most restrictive of any Democratic president. This is not entirely true since Republican and Democratic administrations alike have already taken many steps to restrict legal immigration channels. It is also important to remember that the immigration issue is complex, with many tradeoffs and disagreements even among experts. Irregular border crossings and asylum claims at the border are only one aspect of migration policy. Most movement still occurs via regular legal channels, through family reunification, work visas, and refugee resettlement.

The importance of sustaining the legal immigration system is one of the reasons why some center-left commentators, most prominently Nicholas Kristof and David Leonhardt from the New York Times, backed Biden’s policy (also see Matt Yglesias). They argue that managing immigration well implies imposing some reasonable restrictions, especially if the goal is to avoid a political backlash to uncontrolled immigration or to ensure the system’s overall functionality. 

Not surprisingly, both Kristof and Leonhardt faced much criticism from left-leaning immigrant rights activists and academics for their stance, highlighting the controversial nature of Biden’s move among the Democratic coalition. In this sense, the biggest issue with Biden’s order to restrict asylum is that it doesn’t propose any alternative legal pathways for people who currently wait to apply for asylum at the border. As research shows, expanding legal access for immigrants to the United States can reduce illegal immigration.

A second announcement on June 18

Still, to the relief of many immigrant rights organizations, the Biden administration also announced a plan to streamline the granting of legal status to eligible undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens. This move could help more than 500,000 spouses. Some observers have already called it one of the biggest legalization efforts in recent history since the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

Does this mean the Democratic party may focus on a more balanced approach, mixing restrictive border measures with more liberal legalization policies when political capital allows? It is interesting that the official announcement on June 18 explicitly linked this assistance to mixed-status families to the previous White House order to secure the border. Politically, this may as well be a smart move, as both measures – one restricting immigration and one promising to help spouses obtain legal status – are likely popular among voters. 

Immigration does not have to be unpopular

In the end, immigration, and especially humanitarian immigration, can only be popular and functional in a democracy when voters trust their government to manage immigration in their national interest. This often involves restrictive measures that align with political realities and voter preferences. Biden’s evidently popular executive order to restrict asylum at the border aims to respond to public opinion by doing exactly that. 

But good politics does not necessarily have to be about being tough on immigration. Canada has much higher immigration and refugee resettlement rates than the U.S., for instance. And there’s very little public demand in Canada for tougher immigration measures. In fact, even Canada’s Conservative Party politicians usually decide to compete for the votes of immigrants instead of demonizing them. The key point seems to be that voters seem to have broad faith in Canada’s pragmatic and work-oriented legal immigration system

What the research shows

As some of my own research shows, addressing people’s concerns about immigration is crucial for maintaining their support of a more open system. This may involve restricting some unauthorized immigration that is unpopular and expanding some skilled immigration that is popular. Only by doing so will mainstream politicians be able to build the political capital needed to enact more open immigration policies in the future. Fortunately, popular pro-immigration policies that explicitly and straightforwardly provide national benefits are not just about attracting the best and the brightest. Filling labor shortages, boosting local economies, supporting education, and reuniting and keeping American families together – like in the June 18 Biden policy move – are all popular. Implementing such policies, slowly and gradually, can pave the way for a more open, functional, and even boring immigration system.

Those who advocate for asylum may be right to stay vigilant on the merits of particular policy details of the earlier executive order. Those who are more skeptical about immigration in general may be suspicious about Biden’s intentions. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Biden’s executive actions, both of which may see court challenges, will help him electorally or boost public support for changes to U.S. immigration policies. But without such broad support that requires some restrictive policy response in line with what voters want, legal immigration will likely remain mostly closed, to the detriment of everyone – including those fleeing persecution. 

Alex Kustov is a 2024-2025 Good Authority fellow.