May 4, 2023 - 7:00am

With the expiry of the Title 42 expulsion order scheduled for May 11, Joe Biden’s administration is preparing for an expected new surge of migration by deploying 1500 soldiers to the US’s southern border. Title 42 was instituted in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic under Donald Trump, allowing for the refusal and removal of asylum seekers on public health grounds. It was continued under Biden until it was struck down by the courts late last year. While this is only a temporary measure (along with the earlier deployment of 2500 National Guards), the new infusion of manpower can be expected to bolster US Border Patrol amid what has become a full-blown border crisis. 

However, the true test for Biden is in whether he is able to produce workable long-term fixes to the immigration issue, while dealing with competing pressures from the Right and the Left.

When the President took office, his team had big plans for comprehensive immigration reform by way of a proposed “US Citizenship Act” that combined a path to citizenship with increased border security. But the ambitious bill fell by the wayside, and the administration’s record on immigration has since become bogged down in a series of half-measures conceived in reaction to events beyond its control. 

The White House’s desire to appease the progressive base of the Democratic Party by rejecting any hint of Trumpian border hawkishness has often collided with the need to actually maintain control and dissuade migrants from seeking asylum on America’s doorstep. This has resulted in moments of political indecision and policy impotence bordering on the farcical. 

One example was in 2021, when Vice President Kamala Harris, on a trip to Guatemala, pleaded with would-be migrants in the region, saying: “Do not come.” Unsupported by either the will or the means to enforce border security, Harris’s words were ultimately powerless to stop what was to come. By the middle of 2022, the US was faced with near-record highs of migrant encounters at the Mexican border, over 200,000 last November, just as Title 42 was invalidated.

The border issue initially looked like it would weigh down the Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections, but the incumbent party got lucky. However, this time around, in the lead-up to 2024, Republicans and their nominee — whoever that might be — will be well-positioned to resume their tactic of tarring the President and his party as “open border” zealots. 

Given heightened public dissatisfaction with immigration policy — 63% of Americans are unhappy according to Gallup — the issue can do real damage to Biden’s re-election chances. His only course now is to disprove the accusation by becoming more like Trump, moving aggressively in the direction of border enforcement (by many accounts, he is already on his way there).

The case for a full Democratic volte-face on immigration is a compelling one. Should he go down this path, Biden would be following in the footsteps of other liberal centrist leaders in Canada, France, and Denmark, all of whom adopted restrictionist stances to stave off challenges from the populist Right. If Biden wishes to keep his job, he should start planning for such a turn right now.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.