Biden is walking immigration tightrope - but he's under fire no matter what

Migrants at the US-Mexico border
Immigration and the US-Mexico border are cited by many Americans are their primary electoral concern. [Getty Images]

US President Joe Biden has vowed not to "play politics" with the southern border and immigration - a potentially tall order as the US hurtles toward the November presidential election.

Mr Biden's comments came on what he called a "good day" in which he announced an executive order aimed at protecting hundreds of thousands of undocumented spouses of US citizens from deportation and allowing them to work in the US.

His actions, however, have drawn criticism from Republicans and some fellow Democrats alike, forcing the president into a complex juggling act.

Polls show that a majority of voters see immigration as one of the most important problems facing the country - a fact which makes Mr Biden's stated desire to be apolitical on the issue difficult.

The new executive action announced by the administration on Tuesday has been widely praised by immigration activists and Democrats alike, many of whom have lauded it as the most significant relief programme for undocumented migrants already in the US since the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or Daca, in 2012.

The chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), California Democrat Nanette Barragán, praised the move as a “happy day” for immigrant families, who “can go to sleep tonight knowing their loved ones will not be going anywhere”.

But the latest move stands in stark contrast to his sweeping immigration order issued in early June, which allows officials to quickly remove migrants entering the US illegally without processing their asylum requests.

The executive actions - spaced out over the span of just two weeks - have highlighted the complex tightrope that Mr Biden finds himself in with regards to the issue.

“Biden always finds himself in a hard place,” Republican strategist Doug Heye told the BBC. “Whatever he does is going to get criticism. This is a perfect example.”

“He’s underperforming with Hispanic voters, so he’s trying to make a move to bring in a lot of votes. But it can cost him votes as well,” he added. “That is, by definition, mixed messaging.”

The asylum restrictions announced on 5 June, now the focus of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, were widely criticised by immigration advocates and even some of Mr Biden’s Democratic allies.

In a statement, the CHC called the order “deeply concerning” and symptomatic of enforcement strategies that have “repeatedly proven ineffective” and created “chaos” at the border.

Spokespeople for Donald Trump, Mr Biden's Republican challenger, condemned both actions as a move towards “amnesty” for undocumented workers.

 Pramila Jayapal and Democratic lawmakers at an event protesting Joe Biden's executive action in early June
Mr Biden has been criticised on immigration from his party's left flank, including by Washington congresswoman Pramila Jayapal [Getty Images]

While the number of migrant arrivals and detentions at the US-Mexico border has fallen this year after historic highs earlier in the Biden administration, polls continue to show widespread alarm over the issue.

A May Gallup poll found that 18% of US voters view immigration as their top issue, down from 27% in April, the third consecutive month it topped the list of concerns.

Polls conducted this year have repeatedly shown that many voters trust Trump more on immigration and the border than Mr Biden.

One such poll, released by Decision Desk HQ and NewsNation in May, found that 46% of voters think Trump is the better candidate when it comes to the issues, compared to just 26% for Mr Biden.

Another 13% said they were not sure.

A more recent survey conducted by YouGov and CBS, the BBC’s US partner, found that a majority of registered voters, or 62%, favoured a nationwide programme to deport all undocumented immigrants in the US - an oft-repeated promise of the Trump campaign.

The poll also found that mass deportations were popular with Hispanic voters, with 53% saying they would support such a move.

Mr Heye, the Republican strategist, said the polling numbers suggest that immigration is a winning issue for the Trump campaign and in state races for Congressional seats.

“Republicans feel that they can win on this issue, and they think they can win some Hispanic voters on it as well,” he added. “The centre has shifted right on this issue."

Maca Casado, a spokeswoman for the Biden campaign, told BBC News that on the subject of immigration Republicans "have made clear they only want chaos and partisan politics as usual".

Mr Biden "knows being president is not about theater – it’s about taking action on the issues our communities care most about," she added.

It's unclear whether Mr Biden's recent actions will help quell some of the unease among voters on immigration, but some strategists caution that perceptions could change significantly between now and the election in November.

Democratic strategist Ameshia Cross said that the absence of any meaningful immigration reform in Congress, largely as a result of Republican opposition, will allow the president to show that his “hands are tied” and that his executive actions have contributed to falling migrant figures.

“Republicans have stalled this multiple times. The only tool at the disposal of the president is executive actions,” Ms Cross said. “Obviously, there are going to be some progressive leaders…and Latino legislators who are at odds with that.”

Ms Cross added that Democrats and independents concerned about Mr Biden’s immigration policies may have to “compromise” to help propel a Biden victory. Any prospect of reforms would not be possible under Mr Trump, she added.

“Either they step to the table and are willing to make that happen, or they do not and fight to elect more people who believe the same way they do,” she said. “Right now, the numbers just aren’t in their favour.”