With COVID-19 receding -- at least in vaccinated parts of the country -- but crime hanging on, law and order looks to be a leading issue in the 2022 midterm elections. And that desire for order extends to the border. Democrats should know this: The surge in undocumented migrants at the border could kill them at the polls.
President Joe Biden has not always put forth a convincing message that he's intent on stopping the wave of unauthorized entrants. His administration thus acted wisely last week in maintaining, at least for now, a Trump-era public health law that returned most border crossers to Mexico.
The spike in coronavirus cases may have justified keeping these border controls, which prevented most asylum seekers from applying for protection in the U.S. This was hard from a humanitarian standpoint. But with more than 6,000 arrests a day at the southern border, any relaxation of current restrictions could worsen the chaos at the cost of public support for immigration.
Americans very much oppose illegal immigration. A recent Harvard/Harris poll found that 80% of voters see illegal immigration as a serious issue. More ominously for Democrats, 68% of voters believe Biden's executive orders on immigration encourage illegal immigration. On the question of whether Biden is creating an open border or just trying to enforce the immigration laws more humanely, voters were split. But even 38% of Democrats saw an "open border" policy in his actions.
Legal immigration, on the other hand, is not problem for most. A recent Gallup survey found that 3 in 4 U.S. adults agree that immigration is "a good thing" for the country -- and there's little difference in sentiment by racial or ethnic group. Some 33% wanted the numbers increased, and 35% preferred the current level. Only 31% thought fewer immigrants should be admitted -- a number that's way down from October 2001, when 58% wanted immigration decreased.
Notably, there is broad strong support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which lets immigrants who arrived illegally as children stay in the country. Large majorities support the so-called Dreamers' case. (A federal judge in Texas recently ruled that DACA is unlawful but that people already protected by the program can stay in the country.)
The rush at the border has Democrats in swing districts and purple states especially worried, and for good reason.
Andrew Gillum's unsuccessful run for Florida governor may underscore the dangers of not speaking carefully on this hot issue. A Black former mayor of Tallahassee, Gillum nearly beat out Republican Ron DeSantis in 2018. Though little-known at the time and facing ethics charges, Gillum lost by less than one point after having amassed more votes than any previous Democratic candidate.
Surely one reason for the loss was his call to "abolish ICE." This followed reports that authorities were separating children from their parents at the border. What Gillum actually said was that he wanted to replace the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency with "a more compassionate and focused agency."
DeSantis took Gillum's remark out of context. But no candidate who wants to win over a politically diverse electorate should ever put the word "abolish" in front of "ICE."
Is America suffering a labor shortage that warrants admitting more immigrants? Yes. But let's first recognize that the current scarcity of workers has prompted employers to raise wages. Progressives embrace better pay and benefits, don't they?
Americans could back a careful ramping up of the numbers as long as that's done in an orderly manner. A humane and generous immigration program could enjoy high public support, but only if the laws are taken seriously.
Froma Harrop is a nationally syndicated columnist whose work regularly appears in the Grand Forks Herald.