Border security, the issue that largely defined Donald J. Trump’s victorious 2016 campaign, is back on the national agenda, a potential boost for Mr. Trump — and, for President Biden, a headache with no simple remedy in either policy or politics.
The termination of a pandemic-era program that allowed officials to swiftly expel migrants was expected to draw an additional 7,000 unauthorized people a day, adding to already record levels migrants, from Latin America and elsewhere, driven north by poverty and violence and by perceptions of a more welcoming border under Mr. Biden.
At a televised town hall this week, Mr. Trump predicted that Friday would be a “day of infamy” as the policy known as Title 42 that he first put in place came to an end. He used the same fear-mongering rhetoric of his earlier campaigns to describe migrants in broad and inaccurate strokes as “released from prisons” and “mental institutions.”
The Biden administration announced policies beginning in February to blunt the surge, and so far there have not been signs of disorder since the policy expired. But Mr. Trump — along with Republican officials and conservative media — in recent days have escalated their yearslong attacks over border security, claiming that Mr. Biden has ignored a burgeoning crisis.
Fox News employed a countdown clock to observe the end of Title 42, while broadcasting overhead video from a “Fox flight team” of thousands of migrants in a tent camp that a correspondent said were “waiting until Title 42 drops to cross over illegally.”
Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and 2024 presidential candidate, told the far-right outlet Newsmax that what she saw on a border visit was “unbelievable,” citing cartels trafficking people and fentanyl, the lethal opioid that has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and has become a primary theme of Republican attacks on Mr. Biden’s policies.
“Along with inflation, an out-of-control border is one of the administration’s greatest vulnerabilities,’’ said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “If you watch Fox News, there are few other issues that are as important for the federal government to address.” The lifting of Title 42, he added, was an issue “gift-wrapped with a beautiful bow” for Mr. Trump.
White House and Biden campaign officials largely scoffed at this analysis, citing past efforts by Republicans and conservative media to turn caravans of migrants heading toward the border into election-year crises. For the most part, Mr. Biden himself has avoided focusing attention on the border, with polls showing that immigration motivates far more Republican voters than Democrats.
Still, there is a broad recognition even among Mr. Biden’s allies that perceptions of chaos at the southern border are a political liability — though strategists are optimistic that by the time 2024 ballots are cast voters will have moved on to other topics.
The expected migrant surge is “coming at a good time because it’s not coming in June or May of ’24,” said Matt Barreto, who conducts polling for Mr. Biden’s White House. “The election is not happening in June of ’23. So you’re going to see an extremely well-managed process with the resources we have.”
But while there is potential for the administration to spin the handling of the situation as a show of competence, Mr. Biden’s record will be scrutinized. On his first day in office, he proposed an immigration package that offered a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents, protected so-called Dreamers and added technology to help secure the southern border. The bill, faced with solid Republican opposition, went nowhere.
As a candidate, Mr. Biden had promised not to separate families at the border, as Mr. Trump did in 2018 — and which the former president suggested this week he would reinstate if elected in 2024. Mr. Biden’s more humane message and policies, along with waning of the Covid-19 pandemic, have led to a rise in the number of people trying to enter the country unlawfully, contributing to a large increase in border apprehensions.
Now, with the end of Title 42, the administration has introduced stricter asylum rules to turn back those crossing without permission and sent 1,500 active-duty troops to support the Border Patrol.
Even some Democrats aligned with Mr. Biden have criticized him for not doing more to control the border and for failing to highlight his policies more forcefully.
“All of us who work in Democratic politics have been dreading this moment for two years,” said Lanae Erickson, who runs the public opinion and social policy division at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “It is very evident that Republicans still have an upper hand on immigration and people don’t think that Democrats particularly care about securing the border.”
Progressives seem to agree. “They should have undone Title 42 on the first day in office. They didn’t,” said Chris Newman, the legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Los Angeles. “Now they have to do what they should have done in the first day of office, and they’re doing it poorly.”
Polls show broad dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of immigration. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this year, just 28 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Biden’s handling of the southern border.
In a Fox News poll in April of registered voters, 66 percent of white voters without a college degree said that the White House was not tough enough on unlawful immigration. A majority of Hispanic voters, 55 percent, also said the president was not tough enough.
“Biden won the 2020 election not just because he got big shifts among white college voters, but he stopped the bleeding among white working class voters,’’ said Ruy Teixeria, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “What happens with those voters now that he’s going into 2024 with approval ratings in the low 40s, and then you add to that an emerging immigration problem — a problem these voters very much think matters?”
Other polling is more favorable to the administration. In Mr. Barreto’s recent surveys, conducted in seven battleground states for Immigration Hub, a pro-immigration group, there was broad support for Mr. Biden’s policies, including reversing Trump-era child separation and developing pathways to citizenship for Dreamers.
Democrats point to recent electoral history as a counter to predictions that new scenes of disruption on the border will exact a political price. Republicans and their allies in the media have turned the prospect of caravans of migrants approaching the nation’s southern border into biennial programming designed to motivate a conservative base. But Democrats won convincing victories in 2018, Mr. Biden won the presidency in 2020 and the party over-performed expectations in last year’s midterm elections.
Part of the problem for Democrats is that their border policies tend to be more nuanced than Republicans’ blunt calls to get tough, such as Mr. Trump’s continued focus on building a wall. The Republican approach fires up the party’s base, while Democrats have focused more energy on issues like abortion rights and the economy, which can motivate theirs.
Mr. Biden is also cross-pressured in his own party, with centrist Democrats calling for tougher measures and progressives warning of the dangers faced by expelled migrants and insisting on due process rights for asylum seekers.
“The majority of the American people are with us on this,” said Maria Cardona, a longtime party strategist for the Democrats. “It would be easier to explain if they actually explain it, which is we are for strong border security and humane pathways to legalization.”
Jon Seaton, a Republican strategist who works in Arizona, said that the latest surge of migrants was severely straining government services in parts of the border state and that the issue could play a role in tipping Arizona away from Mr. Biden in 2024, after he defeated Mr. Trump there by the slimmest of margins.
Arizona’s large bloc of independent voters view immigration through a lens that is less ideological and more about government competency, Mr. Seaton said. “These images are not just on Fox News, they’re on local news, they’re fairly pervasive,’’ he said of scenes of people crossing the border and filling the streets of U.S. border cities.
“When they see things like what’s happening, it’s really a potential problem for President Biden and his re-election, and for Democrats up and down the ticket.”
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