Immigration emerges as key 2024 election wedge issue for Trump, vulnerability for Biden

"Biden's on a tightrope with this issue," one observer told ABC News.

January 25, 2024, 5:15 AM

Immigration, one of the most politically divisive and complex matters in the U.S. for decades, is emerging as a top issue in the 2024 election.

Look no further than Iowa and New Hampshire, two early-voting states thousands of miles from the southwest border.

Voters there ranked immigration nearly as important as the economy when asked which issue mattered most in deciding how to vote in the Republican presidential contests.

"I think overall the most important thing to me is securing the borders, national security," Bill Collins of Bedford, New Hampshire, told ABC News at a polling place on Tuesday.

Border security was a centerpiece of Donald Trump's successful 2016 campaign, and he is now repeating those messages (and in many cases going further than he did eight years ago, accused of echoing Hitler in saying immigrants are "poisoning the blood of our country") to energize and unite his supporters against what Republicans have dubbed "Biden's border crisis."

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is facing rancor within his own party as Democratic leaders in New York and Illinois are forced to deal with the fallout from busloads of migrants being sent to their cities by Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott amid a historic influx of border crossings.

"In his entire administration, it has eclipsed everything else," said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

PHOTO: Migrants stand at a processing center as they wait for a bus to Chicago, Oct, 24, 2023, in downtown Brownsville, Texas.
Migrants stand at a processing center as they wait for a bus to Chicago, Oct, 24, 2023, in downtown Brownsville, Texas.
Carlos Barria/Reuters, FILE

Migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border reached a record high of 302,000 in December and apprehensions hit historic peak of 2.2 million in fiscal year 2022. Over 100,000 migrants have been transported to cities like Washington, Los Angeles and New York.

Images of migrants lining the streets in Manhattan or Chicago helped shift perceptions of the issue from a far-away problem to a daily close-reminder of border tumult, making it even more potent than in prior cycles.

"This is where it's different from any other chapter in our history," Chishti said.

"When you have an organic absorption of migrants in society, it doesn't get noticed. But when you have sudden, dramatic groups of people showing up then it becomes a different kind of problem," Chishti added.

PHOTO: Migrants look through the window of a warming bus at the migrant landing zone during a winter storm, Jan. 12, 2024, in Chicago.
Migrants look through the window of a warming bus at the migrant landing zone during a winter storm, Jan. 12, 2024, in Chicago.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

Polls show immigration is a major political vulnerability for Biden. He has just an 18% approval rating on the issue, the lowest for any president since ABC News and the Washington Post began asking the question in January 2004.

An ABC News/Ipsos survey conducted last November, one year out from Election Day, showed Republicans were generally more trusted to do a better job than Democrats when it came to handling immigration. At the same time, nearly a third of U.S. adults said they didn't trust either party to effectively deal with the issue.

Biden's apparent shift

Biden campaigned as Trump's foil on immigration, promising to put an end to controversial policies like those that led to families being separated at the border. Shortly after he entered office, he sent a bill to Congress, he said, to "restore humanity and American values to our immigration system."

But now, amid relentless attacks from critics for his handling of the border, he is entertaining negotiations with Republicans on a compromise immigration bill in exchange for unlocking urgent aid to Ukraine. While hosting mayors at the White House last week, Biden said he is open to "massive changes" to solve the problem at the border, including reforms to asylum laws.

Some congressional Democrats have already aired frustrations with the administration, though no bill text has been released or announced. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, led by Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, called on Biden to "reject Trump-era immigration policies" being pursued by Republicans, saying it's "unconscionable that the President would consider going back on his word to enact what amounts to a ban on asylum."

Biden's apparent shift "appeals to moderates and independents in the electorate but does risk alienating more progressive members of the party," said Louis DeSipio, a political science and Chicano-Latino professor at UC Irvine.

"Biden's on a tightrope with this issue," DeSipio said. "It's the first time in quite a while that Democrats have had this level of internal division over immigration."

While a bipartisan deal could deflate the GOP's talking point that Biden hasn't sufficiently tackled the issue, there's the looming question of whether it will happen at all. Trump has urged Republicans not to accept whatever is worked out between Senate negotiators and the Biden administration. House Speaker Mike Johnson, who speaks to Trump frequently on the issue, has said he doesn't believe now is the time for comprehensive reform. Instead, Johnson has said Biden should use executive action to address the border.

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"It's an issue that Republicans are going to run on but not legislate on," said Douglas Rivlin, the senior communications director at America's Voice, a progressive immigration advocacy group.

Biden and the White House are pushing back on Republicans signaling opposition.

"They have to choose whether they want to solve a problem or keep weaponizing the issue to score political points against the president," Biden said last week.

According to reporters in the room, when asked if the border was secure, Biden replied, "No." He also said “no” when asked if his administration’s policies have caused any of the problems.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally to Restore Roe at Hylton Performing Arts Center, Jan. 23, 2024, in Manassas, Va.
President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally to Restore Roe at Hylton Performing Arts Center, Jan. 23, 2024, in Manassas, Va.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Some immigration activists have accused Biden and Democrats of letting Republicans take control of the narrative.

"Time and time again, what I keep seeing in our polling and in our research is that Americans are just not hearing from Democrats," said Beatriz Lopez, the deputy director with the Immigration Hub.

Lopez said the group urged Biden's team to not cede too much ground in border negotiations to GOP demands, and instead refocus on rebuilding its coalition and reminding voters what's at stake in 2024.

"You're not going to win by out-Republican the Republicans," Lopez said. "You're going to win by leaning into good pragmatic solutions, reminding people of our shared values and countering the anti-immigrant rhetoric. That's the formula."

Trump ramps up anti-immigrant rhetoric

Trump appears even more emboldened this campaign on a number of issues, with immigration at the forefront.

If elected, Trump has said he plans to crack down severely on both legal and illegal immigration. He has vowed to carry out the "largest domestic deportation in American History" and to sign an executive order ending birthright citizenship -- both of which would face significant legal challenges, if not be practically impossible to implement.

He's not only gone so far as to suggest migrants are "poisoning the blood of our country," more recently he's describing migrants coming to the border as dangerous people coming from "insane asylums" being emptied out around the world. CNN reported earlier this year that his campaign could provide no evidence to back up his claims.

But his message of an immigrant "invasion" appears to be resonating among some Republicans.

Debbe Magee, a Trump supporter, cited the border as her most important issue while attending one of his rallies in New Hampshire.

"We're not safe," Magee said.

PHOTO: Supporters of former U.S. president and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump hold a sign about the border wall with Mexico before Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Club 47 USA, Oct. 11, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Supporters of former U.S. president and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump hold a sign about the border wall with Mexico before Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Club 47 USA, Oct. 11, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images, FILE
PHOTO: Former U.S. President Donald Trump, center, speaks during a New Hampshire primary election night watch party, Jan. 23, 2024, in Nashua, N.H.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump, center, speaks during a New Hampshire primary election night watch party, Jan. 23, 2024, in Nashua, N.H.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

DeSipio said Trump, both during his presidency and in the years since, has "captured the fear of the change that was coming to the country" with migration over the past few decades and amplified it.

"It has resonated with Republicans since 2016, and now increasingly with some independents and some Democrats," DeSipio said, though he noted it could do more harm than good among independents and moderates.

Proving the GOP's embrace of Trump's proposals, there was little daylight between him and his GOP rivals on how to approach the issue if elected.

While the issue helped to first propel Trump into the White House, it wasn't as successful in 2018 or 2020. Trump and other Republicans made a migrant caravan moving toward the U.S. a rallying cry in 2018, though Democrats flipped control of the House with a net gain of more than 40 seats. In the 2020 election, immigration issues were largely overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and economy.

But as the 2024 race increasingly turns to a likely rematch between Trump and Biden, Trump is going all in criticizing his chief rival on his management of the border.

"We have millions and millions of people flowing into our country illegally," Trump said in his New Hampshire victory speech. "We have no idea who the hell they are. They come from prisons and they come from mental institutions. And it's just killing our country."

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