You can probably guess why Trump is dead set against the border bill

Its passage could give Biden's approval ratings on immigration a boost.

February 5, 2024, 2:32 PM

At first blush, the bipartisan border deal unveiled in the Senate on Sunday seems like something former President Donald Trump should support. The bill, which would be the biggest change to immigration law in decades, would raise the standards for migrants seeking asylum and give the Department of Homeland Security emergency authority to deny asylum if the number of border crossings gets too high.

Except Trump has already come out against the deal — likely making it a nonstarter in the House of Representatives — and election-year politics seems to be to blame. Looking ahead to the November election, it’s not hard to see why Trump doesn’t want immigration reform to pass right now.

In December, the U.S. Border Patrol arrested ​​249,785 people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally — the highest number in decades. That played right into Trump’s argument that President Joe Biden is incompetent and/or supports “open borders.”

As 538 contributor Michael Tesler wrote last week, anti-immigration attitudes have helped fuel Trump’s support in the GOP primary, and immigration looks like a winning issue for him against Biden too.

According to a Nov. 3-4 poll from ABC News/Ipsos, American adults said they trusted Republicans to do a better job handling immigration than Democrats, 36 percent to 24 percent. That 12-point gap was tied for Republicans’ second-biggest advantage on any issue (out of 11 tested).

And across seven nonpartisan polls conducted in January,* President Joe Biden’s average approval rating on immigration and/or the southern border was just 29 percent, and his average disapproval rating was 63 percent. That’s significantly worse than his already-poor 39-percent-to-57-percent average approval and disapproval ratings in those same polls.

But Biden’s approval rating on the issue of immigration has always been dismal — even last summer, when immigration levels were relatively low. (In June, the Border Patrol made just 99,538 arrests at the border.) As the chart below shows, Biden’s average approval rating on immigration and the border has ticked down by only about 5 percentage points since the spring.

And notably, Democrats still largely approve of Biden’s handling of immigration despite some high-profile criticism from Democratic elected officials. Last fall, as the number of border arrests began to climb, the likes of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams spoke out urging Biden to stem the influx of migrants. And last month, 14 House Democrats voted for a resolution “denouncing the Biden administration’s open-borders policies.”

But Trump probably still does benefit politically from a protracted border crisis. Even if Biden’s approval rating on immigration isn’t strongly tied to immigration levels, they could still affect how big of an issue immigration is in the 2024 election. Every month, Gallup asks Americans what they think the most important problem facing the country is, and the share who pick immigration actually tracks pretty closely with the number of people arrested by the Border Patrol.

PHOTO: Two charts showing border patrol encounters and the percent of Americans selecting immigration as the most important issue each month in 2023.
Immigration got more important to Americans as border arrests rose.
Katie Marriner for 538

As you can see in the chart, back in June, when border encounters were at a low point, only 8 percent of Americans identified immigration as the most important problem. Now, after the border’s record December, 20 percent do.

An important caveat here is that most immigration-first voters are Republicans, who would probably never vote for Biden anyway.

Just 9 percent of Democrats picked immigration as the most important problem in January, compared with 37 percent of Republicans. This was, by far, the biggest party split on the importance of any issue (and we found something similar in our 2022 polling with Ipsos).

But 16 percent of independents also identified immigration as their most important problem, which was up from 6 percent in July.

This is why Biden and Democrats are so desperate to solve the border issue (and why Trump wants to keep it alive): Biden needs independent votes to win in November — and it will be harder to get them if immigration is one of their top issues. Because immigration is perceived as one of Biden’s weakest issues, the more voters who make up their mind based on that issue, the more votes Trump can win — regardless of how unpopular or flawed he is on other fronts.

Mary Radcliffe and Holly Fuong contributed research.


*YouGov/The Economist polled this question four times in January, but we included only their most recent survey.