By ELLIOT SPAGAT
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A sharp drop in illegal border crossings since December could blunt a Republican point of attack against President Joe Biden as the Democratic leader moves to reshape a broken asylum system that has dogged him and his predecessors.
A new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows some support for changing the number of immigrants and asylum-seekers allowed into the country. About 4 in 10 U.S. adults say the level of immigration and asylum-seekers should be lowered, while about 2 in 10 say they should be higher, according to the poll. About a third want the numbers to remain the same.
The decrease in border crossings followed Biden’s announcement in early January that Mexico would take back Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans under a pandemic-era rule that denies migrants the right to seek asylum as part of an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, the U.S. agreed to admit up to 30,000 a month of those four nationalities on humanitarian parole if they apply online, enter at an airport and find a financial sponsor.
The administration has also proposed generally denying asylum to anyone who travels though another country on their way to the U.S. without seeking protection there — effectively all non-Mexicans who appear at the U.S. southern border.
The new rules put forth by Biden could help the president fight back against critics who complain he hasn’t done enough to address border security issues. But the moves have also fueled anger among some of his Democratic allies who are concerned that he is furthering a Trump-era policy they view as anti-immigrant and hurting vulnerable migrants who are trying to escape dangerous conditions in their native countries.
And the new changes — and subsequent drop in illegal border crossings — are unlikely to stop the barrage of attacks from conservatives who see border security as a powerful political weapon.
Biden has been on the defensive as Republicans and right-wing media outlets have hammered him over the soaring increase in migrant encounters at the border. The new House GOP leadership has held hearings on what they call the “Biden border crisis” and talked of impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Agents detained migrants more than 2.5 million times at the southern border in 2022, including more than 250,000 in December, the highest on record. According to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, Border Patrol agents stopped migrants about 130,000 times in February, similar to January.
Among Republicans, the poll shows about two-thirds say there should be fewer immigrants and asylum-seekers, while only about 1 in 10 say there should be more.
Democrats are split: About a quarter say the number of immigrants should increase, a quarter say it should decrease, and about 4 in 10 say it should remain the same. They are slightly more supportive of asylum-seekers specifically, with 37% supporting an increase, 26% backing a decrease, and 36% saying the number should remain the same.
Under U.S. law, numbers are not capped on asylum, which was largely a policy afterthought until about a decade ago. Since 2017, the U.S. has been the world’s most popular destination for asylum-seekers, according to U.N. figures. Even those who lose in court can stay for years while their cases wind through a backlogged system.
Omar Reffell, a 38-year-old independent voter in Houston, said that he supports immigration but that news coverage of “caravans of people trying to cross the border” sends the wrong message to migrants.
“People think that they just show up at the border, come across, there is not going to be any repercussions,” Reffell said. “I’m not against immigration. I think immigration is good for the country, but it has to happen in a very orderly manner or it puts a lot of stress, especially on the border states being able to provide resources.”
More than 100,000 migrants each month were being released in U.S. border cities late last year with notices to appear in immigration court or report to immigration authorities.
Dan Restrepo, a top White House adviser on Latin America during Barack Obama’s presidency, believes the American public will accept high levels of immigration — if a systematic process can be followed.
The challenge in managing migration “is the sense of chaos and disorder that can be created by images of overwhelmed processing facilities and the like at the physical border,” he said. “It’s less the numbers and more the imagery” that bothers voters.
Republicans cast Biden’s expansion of humanitarian parole for four nationalities as a political ploy to divert attention from the border and are not likely to let up on their criticism of the president on immigration. The Federation of American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration group, called January’s plunge in border numbers “a shell game” to boost Biden’s reelection prospects.
Fox News Channel has hit hard on the story over the last year. Reporter Bill Melguin said in a “Battle for the Border” special on Nov. 3 that he had spent more than 200 days on the Texas border.
“We’ve been shooting the video all day long,” Melugin said in a typical report from the Texas town of Eagle Pass. “We keep getting these massive groups of 150 to 200 crossing every single day.”
The network’s night-vision drone cameras have showed hundreds of migrants walking across the border, each one appearing as a luminous white stick slowly advancing across a dark screen.
The poll found 39% of U.S. adults approve of how Biden is handling immigration, and 38% approve of him on border security — slightly below his overall approval ratings. About two-thirds of Democrats but only about 1 in 10 Republicans say they approve of his handling of either issue.
The poll was taken Feb. 16-20, just before the administration proposed on Feb. 21 that asylum should generally be denied to migrants who pass through another country without applying for protection there if it is deemed safe. The administration is angling to have the new rule take effect before the pandemic-related limits on asylum are expected to end May 11, though legal challenges appear imminent.
Becky Steelsmith, a 70-year-old independent voter from Zachary, Louisiana, is reluctant to heap blame on Biden because solutions also eluded his predecessors, but she notes that the optics are not great.
“The only reason why I disagree with Biden’s handling of it is that I think he’s a little too soft,” said Steelsmith, a retired teacher. “I’m not saying it’s his fault that it’s happening. I’m saying that as president, he needs to sit down and really focus and come up with some kind of a solution, or the beginning of a solution.”