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What the Trump/Biden dueling rhetoric at the U.S. border tells us

Both presidential campaigns want to make immigration policy a top issue in the 2024 election.

President Donald Trump visits a stretch of the U.S. border in Yuma, Arizona, where recently installed steel girders aim to block illegal migration into the United States
President Donald Trump visits the U.S. border wall in Yuma, Arizona on June 23, 2020 (Customs and Border Protection photo by Jerry Glaser, via Wikimedia Commons).

In recent weeks, both President Biden and former president Trump visited towns in Texas along the U.S. border with Mexico. Biden spoke in Brownsville on Feb. 29, engaging with border communities and stakeholders to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to resolving the migrant situation at the border with a humanitarian approach. 

The former president spoke at Eagle Pass the same day. In a meeting hosted by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Trump voiced his support for Operation Lone Star and other aggressive moves by the governor to usurp control of the U.S. border from the federal government.

Neither presidential candidate held any public event during their respective visits. Instead, they offered several staged appearances with local partisan officials. Trump and Biden’s approaches to immigration reveal subtle policy differences and underscore the role of presidential rhetoric in shaping national narratives and policy outcomes. 

What does the rhetoric tell us?

Typically, immigration scholars focus on the effects of elite rhetoric, with the president’s motives often escaping scrutiny. In our recent book, The Presidency and Immigration Policy: Rhetoric and Reality, we explain why presidents pay attention to immigration and how presidential rhetoric affects public opinion. We conducted extensive analysis of the frequency, tone, and efficacy of public mentions of immigrants and immigration policy by American presidents. Our findings demonstrate that what presidents publicly say influences the national conversation on immigration policy – but stops short of affecting Congressional action on immigration. 

Power and limits of presidential rhetoric 

Rhetoric gives presidents agency in shaping and defining their political environment. Through rhetoric, presidents not only delineate the terms of an issue but also endeavor to persuade others to accept their interpretation. Successful rhetoric allows presidents to frame policy debates and influence policy outcomes by controlling the direction of discourse.

This approach may entail maintaining the current conversation or altering the framing of a policy debate. Public statements and speeches also allow presidents to assert their continuity with past administrations while reinforcing their place within the presidential lineage. Although rhetoric is subject to evolution, patterns of rhetorical choices tend to recur across similar situations. This lets us make comparisons between presidents’ approaches to immigration rhetoric across different contexts and time periods.

Presidential rhetoric reflects a president’s commitment to an issue, signals policy priorities, and projects presidential power. By leading public discourse, presidents shape the policy agenda and attempt to influence policy outcomes through media coverage, and by influencing both public opinion and legislative action. Previous research suggests, however, that there are limits to the power of presidential rhetoric: Presidents rarely change public views with their speeches.

So what did we learn in Texas? 

Public leadership is integral to a president’s policymaking strategy. When presidents speak, they highlight their policy priorities and attempt to influence others. Examining the rhetoric provides insight into how presidents articulate policy matters while analyzing their public engagement on topics like immigration. 

The main takeaway from Biden and Trump’s dueling border visits is that both campaigns seek to make immigration policy a top issue in the upcoming presidential election campaign. These visits to the U.S. border were carefully crafted media opportunities for the two candidates to define their policy approaches – and criticize their opponent. Both candidates used these visits in an attempt to claim issue ownership over immigration policy for the upcoming election while trying to undermine their opponent’s record and approach. 

Trump underscored his hardline approach to immigration policy by aligning himself with other hardline politicians, like the Texas governor. Abbott has now spent over $10 billion of state money to detain almost half a million migrants. Using fear to mobilize voters, Trump argued that Democrats – and Biden, specifically – have failed to stop the dangerous surge of criminals crossing the border every day. It’s a much-repeated claim that fact-checkers have dismissed as false on multiple occasions.

In contrast, Biden wants to balance public support for stricter immigration policies with calls for a more humanitarian approach to asylum seekers. He looked to boost credibility for this approach by aligning himself with Democratic leaders in Brownsville, including Mayor John Cowan Jr. and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez. Biden’s goal: delineate his approach to immigration policy from Trump’s hardliner stance. Biden emphasized support for increased federal presence at the border while underscoring his reticence to “demonize” migrants.

Why the road from rhetoric to law is so rocky 

Presidents want to use rhetoric to advance their legislative agendas. However, changing existing policies on immigration is particularly tough. That’s in part because of partisan polarization, but also reflects the resistance of people and groups to change existing policies. In fact, it’s arguably been almost 40 years since Congress and the president last enacted major changes to the nation’s immigration laws with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

In a recent book, George C. Edwards argues that Trump, despite his self-proclaimed prowess as a salesman and negotiator, consistently failed to sway the public and Congress. Edward notes that Trump’s rhetorical style and approach to congressional dealings actually diminished his prospects for success. For all of his bravado in his immigration rhetoric, many of Trump’s actions on immigration (e.g., the travel bans, building a border wall, family separation policy, and Title 42) were invalidated, changed, stalled, or rescinded by U.S. federal courts and the subsequent Biden administration – or by the Trump administration itself. And despite a Republican-controlled legislature during Trump’s first two years in office, his administration failed to convince Congress to act on immigration reform. 

Biden and the U.S. border

The Biden administration’s approach has been marked by minimal public engagement on immigration. Biden’s first visit to the border occurred in 2023, at the start of his reelection campaign. His first visit to Brownsville was two weeks ago. Yet Biden, like Trump, also faces persistent challenges in addressing immigration policy in any enduring way.

In our work, we find that while presidential responsiveness to public concerns on immigration is evident, it does not translate into leading the public agenda. And, despite efforts to shape legislative agendas, presidents have always contended with a lack of influence over immigration legislation outcomes. 

What’s more, presidents are more likely to call on Congress to act when they are in danger of failing to achieve success. The most recent examples are Biden’s unsuccessful calls for Congress to pass the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 and the 2023 Supplemental Funding request for aid to Ukraine, including $14 billion to increase U.S. border patrol staffing. But in our investigation, we find no evidence that presidential attention to immigration policy increased the likelihood of presidential success on immigration roll call votes between 1952 and 2020. 

Immigration has become highly polarized

Presidential success has also become more difficult as immigration policy has become an increasingly polarized issue in Congress. Last month, for example, the House blocked a compromise Senate bill offering $6 billion for immigration detention and deportations and a four-fold increase in funds to increase asylum officers.

Ultimately, private negotiations with stakeholders, bureaucrats, and policymakers, along with executive actions, may continue to produce more results on highly salient issues like immigration. For example, President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was a bill (for better or worse) created with bipartisan support. But stakeholders like the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also had input, and pushed for softer or no employer sanctions. Further, in 2021, Biden had some success in strengthening the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections by codifying the program in the Department of Homeland Security codes of regulation. 

To date, however, presidential efforts to shape the immigration agenda through their rhetoric have not brought about comprehensive and durable reform of U.S. immigration laws. 

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha is a professor of political science at the University of North Texas. His research focuses on the presidency, mass media, and public policy.

Eric Gonzalez Juenke is an associate professor in the department of political science at Michigan State University. He specializes in Latinx politics, U.S. electoral institutions, state and local elections, and minority representation.

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, Eric Gonzalez Juenke, and Andrea Silva are the authors of The Presidency and Immigration Policy: Rhetoric and Reality (Routledge Press, 2024).