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Will illegal immigrants be Trump's gateway back to the White House?

February 12, 2024 at 1:34 pm

Demonstrators hold “Save Asylum” banners outside the US Supreme Court during a news conference rally in Washington DC., United States on February 6, 2024. [Celal Güneş – Anadolu Agency]

US media outlets report routinely on the journey of undocumented immigrants which use the services of shady yet sophisticated networks to reach America and start working illegally. Roughly 2.5 million people entered the US illegally last year via clandestine routes. Such occurrences are now commonplace and are a source of unease for many. Recently, the security of the southern border has received renewed attention. Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to erect new barbed wire barriers, despite a Supreme Court ruling, and backed by 25 Republican-held states and former President Donald Trump, has reinvigorated the debate.

According to a report by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency within the Department of Homeland Security, in the fiscal year 2023 illegal crossings at the south-west border have increased by over 40 per cent since the fiscal year 2021, by four per cent compared with the fiscal year 2022, and by over 100 per cent compared with the fiscal year 2019.

As another presidential election looms, it appears that President Joe Biden and Trump may face off once more.

A central issue for both candidates will be convincing their supporters and swing voters of their stance on illegal immigration.

According to the 2021 data, approximately 10.5m unauthorised immigrants reside in the US. With new southern border crossings, this number is believed to have increased by about 4.9m since then. Overstayed visas add to these figures. It’s important to consider the status of unauthorised immigrants in all states in the country, as it could sway election outcomes. States with significant unauthorised immigrant populations include California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

Swing state Florida was won by Trump in the 2020 election, and the current scenario suggests that the Democrats might face challenges in the next election. In 2020, Biden won New Jersey by approximately 725,000 votes and Illinois by a margin of around one million votes. His substantial margins might now be vulnerable to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, potentially shifting the tide in favour of the Republicans. Failing to win just these three states would mean a loss of 63 Electoral College votes for Biden. Even in traditionally Democratic states, Biden could face a fall in votes, for many reasons.

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Economic factors, the housing crisis and security concerns are on the top of the list. From June 2022 to March 2023, the annual Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation decreased from 9.1 per cent to five per cent. However, the contribution of housing to inflation increased significantly during this period.

According to the National Association of Realtors, there is currently a housing shortage in the US of between 5.5 and 6.8m units. The US adds approximately 2 to 2.4m new households each year, all of which are assumed to require housing. However, data from 2023 indicates that construction of an estimated 1,413,100 housing units started, which is nine per cent below the 2022 figure of 1,552,600. This suggests that the housing problem, exacerbated by the unauthorised and unplanned migration crisis in the US, is likely to get worse.

Republicans might capitalise on the “uncontrolled” nature of this migration, with concerns over job displacement, wage suppression and security fears resonating with the public. Despite this, the US does not embrace xenophobia as seen in Europe’s far-right trends, but rather upholds diversity through programmes like the Green Card lottery and citizenship initiatives. A Statista survey from November 2023 showed that 68 per cent of Americans view legal immigration positively.

In general, there were approximately 7.8m unauthorised immigrants in the US workforce in 2021. Additionally, when adding to these numbers the 35,433 aliens with criminal convictions or outstanding warrants nationwide arrested by the CBP, Biden’s position appears weaker against the Republicans because the level of concern about illegal immigration is increasing steadily.

According to a June 2023 report by the Pew Research Centre, nearly 47 per cent of Americans consider illegal immigration a very significant problem in the country. The likelihood of Republicans viewing illegal immigration as a major national issue is much higher, with 70 per cent compared with Democrats at 25 per cent. When asked about which party’s policies on immigration they align with more, a greater number of Americans say that they align with the Republican Party (41 per cent) rather than the Democratic Party (31 per cent) in general on immigration policies.

Given these dynamics, the Biden administration faces a disadvantage on unauthorised immigration issues compared with its rivals. In fact, the incumbent administration is between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Republican-leaning constituencies underscore its challenges in curtailing illegal immigration. On the other hand, left-leaning constituencies criticise the administration for not being diverged significantly from Trump’s policies, leading to the continued harsh treatment of immigrants.

The US is not the only country that has problems with immigration, but it faces a special dilemma. In a way, it is torn between identity factors and economic considerations. Its economy needs more immigrants, particularly highly skilled people, to make up for the low birth rate and to maintain its competitiveness. However, Trump and the Republicans are notoriously shrewd in manipulating society’s fears for their own electoral advantage. In any case, addressing the public perceptions on this issue represent a key factor for the Biden administration to win the upcoming presidential election.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.