Biden Is Playing Right Into the GOP’s Hands on Immigration

biden immigration sotu

​​Anat Shenker-Osorio is a political strategist and communications researcher for progressive campaigns. 

President Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union last week in fantastic fighting form, as befitting a leader confronting an in-house authoritarian faction hostile to democratically elected government — at least until he turned to immigration.

There, he slipped into opposition tropes, using “illegal” as a noun — a move Biden admitted regretting, to his credit, in an interview over the weekend. Nevertheless, in an effort to expose the GOP’s hypocrisy, Biden unwittingly affirmed Republicans, and “his predecessor,” Donald Trump, as legitimate leaders on this topic. In the process, he undermined his broader argument for why MAGA Republicans have no business governing.

If your electoral approach hinges on voters understanding that Republicans adhere to a “semi-fascist” ideology, in Biden parlance, it does not make sense to declare you are trying to co-govern with those semi-fascists. Yet Biden did so, touting his attempt at a bipartisan border compromise and offering to “do it together” with Trump, the man his campaign rightly called out for echoing Hitler. How is a voter meant to follow that storyline?

Exposing Republicans for putting their lust for power above the wishes and well-being of the American people is spot on. So, too, is messaging about Democrats delivering solutions. But conveying those two things does not require promising to deliver on Republican policies — this, in fact, hinders the message. The effective approach to make voters see you as capable of delivering real fixes is to seize the moral high ground, by drawing a clear contrast with the opposition — not embracing them.

On immigration, Democratic leaders have convinced themselves that adopting Republican policies, and pulling a “gotcha” on their hypocrisy, is the way to defeat Republicans. Before we unpack the thinking behind that, why it falls short, and what to do instead, let’s start where there’s widespread agreement: Biden and Democrats must improve how they’re perceived on immigration. 

January Gallup polling showed that among those disapproving of Biden, immigration was the top cause of their grievance. It might sound like immigration is the linchpin of Biden’s electoral prospects — unless you look under the hood and note that a mere 19 percent of the naysaying voters selected “immigration” as their top problem with Biden, and those who did are mostly Republicans who will never vote for him, period. 

Nevertheless, the number of overall voters — not just Biden detractors — who name immigration as their top concern and fault Democrats on it has been climbing. In one month of 2024, Gallup saw the proportion of voters placing immigration in that top problem slot grow from 20 percent to 28 percent. And in a recent Marist poll, 41 percent of registered voters believed Republicans “will do a better job at handling the issue of immigration,” while 29 percent said that of Democrats.

To be sure, some of this is a response to reality: Apprehensions of immigrants hit a peak of 2.2 million in fiscal year 2022. But it’s worth noting that the purported salience of the issue is influenced by the polling itself. Where most voters do not contemplate immigration unprompted, seeing it listed among potential concerns makes them think about immigration.

More importantly, this shift in public opinion is propelled by right-wing fear-mongering and xenophobia: from rhetoric that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” false claims of rampant criminality, to busing migrants to major cities without any infrastructure to receive them. At the State of the Union, Marjorie Taylor Greene heckled Biden, calling out the tragic case of Laken Riley — as opposed to any number of other people murdered, in any number of horrific ways — to further precisely this fear the foreigners storyline. In the heat of the moment, Biden took the bait, dehumanizing immigrants more broadly and giving MAGA their soundbite by responding that Riley “was killed by an illegal.” 

As Biden himself has acknowledged, like all authoritarians, Trump and his MAGA cheerleaders know there’s no quicker route to establishing an “us” than selecting a “them” to shame, blame, and harm. Trump kickstarted his 2016 bid for office by spewing anti-immigrant invectives. He tried to hang his 2018 midterm prospects and 2020 fortunes on “migrant caravans.” It’s little wonder that Republicans are turning up the volume on the same tune: pick a group to revile, make fear of them salient to voters, and accuse your political rivals of creating the danger. See their complaints about “critical race theory” and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) as recent examples, and “inner city crime” as an evergreen favorite.

The question for Democrats is how to contend with the right’s efforts to advance authoritarianism by weaponizing fear and resentment.  

On immigration policy, Team Biden has decided, if you can’t beat them, say you’re willing to join them. As Biden did at the State of the Union and in the weeks leading up to it, he and his allies have been touting a border security bill made up of Republican priorities that GOP lawmakers tanked in deference to Trump. 

On Feb. 29, President Biden said this from Brownsville, Texas: “Here’s what I would say to Mr. Trump: Instead of playing politics with the issue, instead of telling members of Congress to block this legislation, join me, or I’ll join you in telling the Congress to pass this bipartisan border security bill. We can do it together.”

The logic for this approach goes as follows: Voters say they care a lot about immigration and prefer the Republican approach to it. Let’s offer them the Republican approach and fault Republicans for not delivering it. Unsurprisingly, mainstream pundits and purveyors of centrism lauded Biden for adopting this tack. 

If voters were rational actors with static beliefs who make electoral decisions based on politicians’ easily discernible policy promises, then polling their preferences and offering those as your plans would make sense. But they aren’t, so it doesn’t. 

Ironically, immigration may be the canonical example that shows that voters can and do change their minds about issues. Ronald Reagan, who launched his presidential run from the Statue of Liberty praising immigrants, was a longtime standard-bearer for the Republican Party. Unsurprisingly, Republican voters in the 1980 and 1990s were also much more welcoming of newcomers and didn’t consider “amnesty” a dirty word. 

To be fair, the people promoting this shift in Democratic rhetoric and policy offer poll-tested evidence that voters are keen on the border bill’s elements and shift toward Democrats once they’re told about Republican antics to block it. This is where the artifice of making people pay attention and asking them questions immediately after exposure to your message (often without a rebuttal from the opposition) can show positive effects that do not hold in real life. 

In the real world, voters make their decisions largely on the basis of partisan identity — not well-reasoned issue preferences. And they are inundated with competing information, which they receive while heavily distracted.

Democrats will never sway someone who wants Republican Robocop on immigration to pick the Democratic mall cop. Despite Democrats’ attempts to tell these voters that Republicans are talking tough on the border, but refusing to deliver, this message has no chance of breaking through. Arguments about how Republicans tanked their own immigration bill for political gain will not stand up to ads and speeches accusing Democrats of bringing unwashed hordes and deadly drugs into the country. 

Democrats thinking they’ve nailed Republicans to the cross of their hypocrisy demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what voters hear, believe, and remember. Voters do not follow the machinations of legislative wrangling. If they follow anything about politics at all, and most don’t, it’s broad, sweeping narratives. 

This is true anytime, but even more so in a confrontation with Trump, who offers up the tropes of the “strongman.” Trump’s promise and allure is that he alone can bring order to the border, restoring the rightful rule of real Americans. So, Trump ordering his MAGA Republican minions not to deal with Biden is absolutely consistent with what he promises. It’s yet another demonstration of his power. When he says jump, Republican lawmakers ask how high. 

In contrast, Biden is unwittingly affirming the power of a man who will not even admit Biden is our legitimate president — and crediting Trump as a deal-making partner. 

The idea that Trump and Republicans will pay a price for their failure to come together with Democrats to “solve” immigration ignores the heart of the right-wing story: Biden and Democrats are the creators of the immigration problem. As part of that story, any immigration deal Democrats support must be a bad one; any claims they make that the deal came from Republicans and would have delivered border security cannot be trusted. 

In short, Americans who consider a “tough on border” stance paramount — like those who rank having zero restrictions on firearms or seizing women’s reproductive freedoms at the top of their wish lists from politicians — are never going to vote for Democrats. 

This leaves two groups of voters up for grabs: a small sliver of “swing” voters and a growing cohort of “surge” voters — non-habitual voters who tend to favor Democrats, arguably because they are motivated to repudiate MAGA Republicans, if they can be compelled to turn out.

So, what should Biden and Democrats do? They should embrace what’s been proven to work not merely in comprehensive testing, but in winning real-world campaigns, including their own.

Let’s start by considering why Trump’s rhetoric about “migrant caravans” failed in 2018 and 2020. In those instances, Democrats refused to take up the bait. Unlike now, they didn’t come out with a bipartisan border security bill, thereby raising the salience of the issue and signaling to voters that, yes, this is a legitimate concern and Republicans have the right ideas about it. 

Of course, in those years, there were fewer people immigrating. But stepping back and taking a broader look at the races and places where Democrats have won in red or purple districts since 2016, we see a consistent pattern: When Democrats make arguments on their own terms, decrying how MAGA Republicans are coming to take away our freedoms and how Americans must vote to protect them, turnout soars and Democrats win. When they agree to have the debate Republicans want, be it on crime or whether the economy is good, turnout is anemic and they lose. 

What we find over and again in message testing — and in winning campaigns — is there is a formula for defeating right-wing, resentment-based strategies. A recent example of this can be heard in “People Move,” a television ad script my team crafted with our partners at Way to Win that moved respondents overall five points towards Democrats in a randomized controlled-trial of 1,998 registered voters. 

“Most of us will do whatever it takes to make a better life,” reads the tested narrative, which could be turned into an ad, door-to-door canvassing script, or political speech. “We work, and even pack up everything, so we can provide for our families. Immigrant Americans move here for the promise of freedom and opportunity. Democrats offer real solutions: create a fair immigration process and make the border work. Republicans block them. They want chaos and conflict as distractions from how they’re taking away what our families need. Let’s trade Republicans’ hate peddling for Dems’ problem solving.”

We have been iterating and testing this Race Class Narrative approach since 2017. It works by first asserting what we’re actually for, in the language of shared values. Next, it names how the opposition uses deliberate division in order to shield from view their true aims: to rule for the wealthiest few. In essence, it exposes the “look over there” trick Republicans keep deploying — rendering it far less effective. Finally, it positions us as the ones offering real solutions, in alignment with our shared values. 

Republicans have long understood that to win the debate, you must set the terms. They throw red meat to their base, making salient through repetition the issues they believe will keep their loyal followers engaged and enraged, in order to convert the conflicted. Bonus points when Democrats repeat Republican tropes, and depress their base, while still not reaching, let alone actually winning, new votes among those wanting the opposition’s approach. 


To win, you must run against your opposition, not the people whom the opposition has selected to scapegoat. It is not enough to make Republicans’ failure to follow through on their preferred policies their sin. They have an easy explanation for that — the policies wouldn’t actually solve the immigration problem (because Trump alone can do that task). 

If your electoral prospects hinge on voters understanding that Republicans are hell-bent on authoritarian rule and are bringing it soon to a uterus, a classroom, a job site, and a concentration camp near you, it does not work to say: We’re ready to pass the border deal Republicans cooked up.

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