7 min read

The global patterns behind Biden’s immigration pivot

Center-left across the world are dropping their previous pro-immigration stances.
The global patterns behind Biden’s immigration pivot
Photo by Daniel Schludi / Unsplash

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For months now, Keir Starmer has been trying to follow in Joe Biden’s footsteps. Starmer — the leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party and the country’s likely next prime minister — has embraced Biden’s economic policy. He’s repeatedly pushed for a meeting with the U.S. president. And his aides have looked to Biden’s 2020 speeches and strategy as a “template” for their campaign.

This week, though, Biden is the one trailing after Starmer, as the two center-left leaders attempt to pull off nearly identical pivots on immigration. Allow me to explain:

When Starmer was running to be the Labour leader in 2020, he said that the party had been “scared of making a positive case for immigration for quite a number of years.” Under his leadership, Starmer promised, Labour would “welcome people wherever they come from, thank them for their contribution, and see them as part of our families, our communities, and our society, and embrace that.”

Four years later, with the UK’s parliamentary elections exactly a month away, Starmer is singing a different tune. “My Labour government will cut immigration,” he tweeted on Sunday. “We will expand opportunities for people in Britain, training more UK workers and protecting working conditions.”

“Read my lips: I will bring immigration numbers down,” he told The Sun this weekend, taking a rhetorical cue from George H.W. Bush.

Today, it’s Biden’s turn. When he was seeking the White House in 2020, Biden branded Donald Trump’s immigration policies as “inhumane” and pledged to reverse them. He also promised to increase the number of asylum seekers who would be allowed into the U.S.

“We could afford to take in a heartbeat another two million,” Biden said on the campaign trail. “The idea that a country of 330 million people cannot absorb people who are in desperate need and who are justifiably fleeing oppression is absolutely bizarre.”

Later this afternoon, Biden is expected to sign an executive order that would pause the entire asylum system. According to the Associated Press, under the order, the U.S. would stop considering new asylum claims whenever illegal crossings at the border hit 2,500 per day; the border would not reopen until daily crossings drop to 1,500. In April, border authorities apprehended about 4,300 migrants per day — so a roughly two-thirds decrease will be required for the asylum process to start up again. Until that target is reached, asylum seekers will be returned to Mexico and considered ineligible for entry into the U.S.

The policy bears similarities to a proposal put forward by Trump in 2018, which was struck down by the courts; Biden’s plan is expected to face legal challenges as well. “The order would represent the single most restrictive border policy instituted by Mr. Biden, or any modern Democrat,” the New York Times points out.

What changed on both sides of the pond in just four years?

In short: immigration levels exploded after the pandemic, and public opinion towards migrants soured considerably.

You can see this in the U.S., where Biden has presided over a sharp uptick in migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border...

Graph by the Pew Research Center

...And in the UK, where immigration levels surged during the same period:

Graph by the University of Oxford

Both Americans and Brits have grown angry at their governments for not doing more to stem the tide: an AP/NORC poll in March found that 68% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the border, while a YouGov poll found that 84% of Brits disapprove of the current Conservative government’s immigration policy.

The salience of immigration has also increased in both countries. In a Gallup poll in February, a plurality of Americans named immigration as the “most important problem” facing the country — a status it had not held since 2019, and which it maintained for the next three months. In the UK, immigration ranks as the second most important issue to voters. Pluralities of both countries say in polls that immigration levels should be decreased.

With similar numbers showing up in other countries, Biden and Starmer are not alone in dropping their pro-immigration stances.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron shepherded through a tough immigration law late last year, dividing his centrist governing coalition. In Germany, even the Green Party is calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration. In Canada, liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged in April that immigration had to be brought “under control,” a stark reversal from his rhetoric in the past.

These pivots represent center-left leaders’ attempts to solve what has become an urgent dilemma for their parties, as anti-immigration attitudes have helped drive a global class dealignment in which working-class voters have abandoned left-leaning parties and helped fuel the rise of right-wing populists.

In order to regain critical working-class support as sentiments towards migrants sour, and to avoid attacks — used by right-leaning politicians the world over — that they are abetting “open-border” policies, leaders like Biden, Starmer, Macron, and Trudeau have made the same calculation.

It won’t be long before we see whether these pivots meet success, as immigration has become a major theme for many contests in the so-called “Year of Elections,” in which almost half the world’s population is set to cast votes. In addition to the U.S. elections in November and the UK’s in July, elections for the European Parliament (the legislature of the European Union) are due to take place later this week, with a surge in support for right-wing parties possible, partially due to immigration.

In Canada, where immigration is emerging as a key vulnerability for the unpopular Trudeau, elections are likely to be held sometime next year.

More news to know.

Sen. Bob Menendez. (Photo by the New Jersey National Guard)

Donald Trump’s conviction has supercharged his fundraising. Trump’s campaign said Monday that it raised $141 million in May, almost doubling his haul from the month before. More than one-third of the May total ($53 million) came in the 24 hours after he was found guilty of 34 felonies; 25% of the month’s donors had not previously donated to Trump’s 2024 efforts, according to the campaign. By comparison, Trump raised $76 million in April, while Biden raised $51 million. Biden has not yet released his May total.

The jury in Hunter Biden’s Delaware criminal trial has been selected. Six men and six women were chosen as the jurors Monday, while four women were selected as alternates. Opening arguments will begin today, kicking off the first trial of a U.S. president’s child. Biden faces three felony charges of lying to purchase a firearm.

Meanwhile, Trump is unlikely to stand trial again before November. A state appeals court moved on Monday to schedule a hearing on Trump’s request for Fulton County district court Fani Willis to be removed from his Georgia case. The arguments were set for October 4, all but ensuring that the trial would be postponed past the election. Trump’s federal cases in D.C. and Florida have also been delayed repeatedly.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) filed to run for re-election as an Independent. Menendez, who has served in the Senate for almost two decades, announced in March that he would not run for his seat as a Democrat, after federal prosecutors charged him with illegally acting as a foreign agent for the Egyptian and Qatari governments. Menendez’s trial is currently ongoing. His entrance into the race could complicate Democrats’ hopes of keeping the blue-leaning seat.

For those keeping track, that’s news about a former president, the First Son, and a senior U.S. senator, all facing criminal charges.

The day ahead.

First Lady Jill Biden (in purple) and Hunter Biden (holding glasses) can be seen in a sketch from the first day of the latter’s criminal trial. (Sketch by Bill Hennessy)

White House: President Biden will host the White House Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn. Later tonight, he will depart for France, where he will mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day later this week.

  • Vice President Harris is in Los Angeles, where she will appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and participate in a political event.

Congress: The Senate will vote to confirm Christopher Hanson’s nomination to be a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Tanya Jones Boiser’s nomination to be an Associate Judge of the D.C. Superior Court.

  • The House will begin work on its first Fiscal Year 2025 appropriations bill, on military construction and veterans affairs. The chamber will also consider a bill that would sanction International Criminal Court officials for seeking an arrest warrant against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Committees: Attorney General Merrick Garland will testify before the House Judiciary Committee, while FBI Director Christopher Wray will testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Watch Garland at 10 a.m. ET... Watch Wray at 2:30 p.m. ET

Courts: Opening arguments will be held in Hunter Biden’s criminal trial in Delaware.

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