More Americans disapprove than approve of how President Joe Biden deals with waves of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and approval of his efforts at broader immigration policies lags behind other top issues – suggesting that this could be a vulnerability for the US new administration.
A new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs also shows that solving the problem of young people on the border is among Americans’ top immigration priorities: 59% say treating unaccompanied children safely when arrested is a task should be high priority, and 65% say the same about reuniting families separated at the border.
Former President Donald Trump built his presidency on tough policies that expanded and fortified the border walls and made it more difficult for people fleeing drug violence and other desperate circumstances in Mexico and Central America to seek U.S. asylum and separate immigrant families .
Biden has tried to harness the political momentum on this issue by promising a more humane and orderly system, but his government has struggled to cope with the increasing numbers of migrants, especially unaccompanied children, who come to the border.
Overall, 40% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of children who reach the country’s southern border without their parents, compared with just 24% who are in favor. Thirty-five percent have no opinion either way.
“I don’t know how to put this right politically: I feel like this new administration makes people feel like they can come into the country,” said Mindy Kiehl, a 40-year-old real estate agent in Erie, Pennsylvania. who otherwise agrees with Biden’s previous dealings with the presidency.
“I understand. They seek refuge,” added Kiehl. “But bringing these children with you is not good for the children, it is not good for the families. I don’t know how that will solve the problem.”
Biden said at a recent press conference: “We are sending back the vast majority of the families who are coming.” But his struggles on this matter extend beyond unaccompanied minors.
Only 42% of Americans say they approve of the president’s handling of immigration in general, and a similar percentage, 44%, approve of his handling of border security. Both are significantly lower than the 61% of Americans who say they approve of the way Biden does his job overall and behind on a few other issues, including his response to the coronavirus pandemic and managing the economy lagging behind the President’s assessment.
This void arises despite the fact that the White House advocates the most ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in a generation on the first day of its term in office. It’s stalled in Congress, however, and Republicans and even some top Democrats say the passage will be difficult.
The plan would provide an eight-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the United States, but the survey shows this isn’t high on the public’s priority list. Only 29% of Americans as a whole, including 42% Democrats and 14% Republicans, made legal status illegally a high priority for people in the country.
In addition, only a third of Americans say giving refugees access to the US or expanding “guest worker” programs should be a high priority.
The gap between Biden’s general approval rating and his handling of immigration crosses the boundaries of the parties. 74% of Democrats and 10% of Republicans are in favor of Biden’s approach to immigration, compared to 96% of Democrats and 22% of Republicans who overall agree.
The difference also affects racial and ethnic groups. Overall, 92% of black Americans, 67% of Hispanics, and 52% of white Americans say they approve of the way Biden does his job. On immigration, 74% of black Americans, but only 50% of Hispanics and 34% of white Americans say they agree.
Jack Henes, a retiree in Sebastian, Fla., Said Biden failed to address immigration and several other hot button issues while calling what was happening on the US southern border an “administrative nightmare.”
In anticipation of the larger legislative package, the democratically controlled house passed minor reforms that are faced with uncertain future prospects in a 50:50 split in the Senate. Biden has also taken executive action to try to roll back many of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, but has been criticized for not acting fast enough.
Others believe he has gone too far.
“I worry that President Biden made the world feel like it’s okay to just walk in,” said Matthew Behrs, a Trump supporter in Wisconsin.
The poll shows that many Americans rank some of the Democratic proposal’s main goals as moderate priorities rather than high, suggesting that Biden does not have a clear mandate on how best to proceed on this matter, which may be its leverage over Congress impaired.
And many would like enforcement efforts to be part of the conversation: 53% consider increasing border security a high priority. 47% of Americans also say the federal government should make strengthening policies to prevent immigrants from exceeding their visas a high priority.
Fewer, about a third, say penalizing companies hiring illegal immigrants and deporting illegal immigrants should be a high priority.
The survey also found that Americans are more for than against allowing immigrants who were brought into the US illegally as children to remain legal, 53% to 24%, with 22% saying they are neither for nor oppose it. Nevertheless, only 41% cite the expansion of legal protection to so-called dreamers as a high priority. A plan approved by the House of Representatives but awaiting Senate action seeks to do just that.
Biden has now appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to work with Central American countries to address the root causes of illegal immigration. Henes, the retiree, suggested that Biden gave Harris the problem to buy himself time – but that it didn’t help.
“You’re still in the group,” said Henes. “You are not ready to name a piece.”
The AP-NORC survey of 1,166 adults was conducted March 26-29 using a sample from NORC’s AmeriSpeak probability-based panel, which is believed to be representative of the US population. The margin of error in the sample for all respondents is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.