What Biden’s Stumble on Refugees Says About Immigration

President Biden’s honeymoon keeps getting sweeter. The economy is picking up steam, as is public optimism about the coronavirus pandemic, helping the 46th president to an approval rating of nearly 60 percent in the latest Pew Research poll as he approaches the end of April and his 100th day in office. 

Even better for Biden, Republicans are paralyzed by internal divisions and clinging to the idea of a restoration for former President Donald Trump. That hope/fear means that on the issues where the GOP managed to present a united front against the new Obama administration 12 years ago, there is now a great deal of sheepish silence. Since much of what Biden is doing on deficit-fueled stimulus, infrastructure spending, and the withdrawal of U.S. forces abroad represents a continuation of Trump policies, Republicans are in poor shape to oppose him. Given the new GOP obsession with being the party of labor and scourge of capital, the nationalists may end up hitting Biden for not going far enough to expand government power to punish companies.

But it’s not all breakfast in bed and liquid lunches for Biden & Co. on this honeymoon. Last week, the left wing of his party quickly backed him down on that hardest of all domestic policy issues: immigration.

In a classic Friday news dump, Biden entered an executive order that would have maintained through September rock-bottom Trump administration caps on refugee resettlement. In February, Biden had promised to increase the number of refugees granted asylum in the U.S. from the current 15,000 per year by more than fourfold. The response from immigration activists was so sharp that Biden reversed himself the next day. But he muffed the mulligan, too—blaming the staffing demands caused by the “crisis” at the southern border for causing the delay. His administration had been laboriously avoiding that word. Not only for the obvious reason that “crisis” would reinforce the idea of the White House overwhelmed by the flood of migrant children, but also because a “crisis” implies such migration is inherently a negative thing—a no-no on the pro-immigration left.

While Biden has so far gotten cover from congressional Democrats in his efforts to stem the tide of illegal border crossings, he’s got a serious problem with expectations among many activists in his own party. House Democrats have broken up Biden’s proposal for a comprehensive immigration deal of the kind that eluded Trump, Obama and George W. Bush, and are already pushing through party-line bills to loosen existing restrictions—and that’s just the opening bid. The strength of the backlash against Biden’s refugee status quo order on Friday and the speed with which he caved makes clear the divergent goals of the White House and many on his party’s left—and the distrust between them. Republicans and immigration activists are both excited about what they see as the inevitable showdown between the two camps.

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