‘Angels’ and an ‘animal’: Biden, Trump spar on immigration ahead of debate

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President Biden and his presumptive opponent Donald Trump each amplified the case of a particular undocumented immigrant last week, using vastly divergent language in a preview of the sharp contrast they plan to draw on immigration during their debate Thursday.

At a June 18 rally in Racine, Wis., Trump railed against a man from El Salvador accused of murdering a Maryland mother of five, calling him an “animal.” About an hour earlier at the White House, Biden praised “angels” like Javier Quiroz Castro, a nurse who served patients suffering from covid-19 at the height of the pandemic.

“Thank you for what you did to help us get through the pandemic, pal, and for all you’re doing for our country,” Biden said while announcing a program to make it easier for Castro and other undocumented immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens to apply for legal residency.

The dueling speeches reflect the competing approaches the two candidates are taking as they confront a contentious issue that polls show has become increasingly salient for voters. Those strategies are likely to be on display Thursday, as Trump seizes on a subject that was central to his political rise while Biden argues that Trump is torpedoing actual solutions to preserve a political issue.

As Trump repeatedly cites instances of what he has branded “Biden migrant crime,” Biden is aiming to train Americans’ focus away from the surge of migration at the southern border during his presidency. After issuing new asylum restrictions this month that could shut down much of the border, Biden’s latest move seeks to highlight a more sympathetic group — undocumented residents who have been in the country for years, working and becoming part of their communities.

Both men are planning to go on the attack on the issue during Thursday’s debate, aides say. With immigration emerging as one of Biden’s biggest political liabilities, according to polls, his ability to parry Trump’s expected onslaught and make a case for his policies could prove especially challenging.

“Trump and Republicans obviously are not worrying about walking any fine lines on immigration. They have put all their chips on the table in favor of attacking immigrants as criminals, terrorists and economic threats,” said Dan Tichenor, a professor at the University of Oregon who has written about the politics of immigration. “The debate is almost certain to highlight a familiar contrast — Trump assailing immigrant threats and border chaos, and Biden asserting that his opponents are making a false choice between border security and welcoming immigrants.”

The debate could also offer Trump an opportunity to clarify his position on legal immigration after saying last week he supported giving green cards to every foreign student who graduates from a U.S. college. The remark, made during an interview with the “All-In” podcast, drew criticism from some Trump supporters who saw it as a major departure from his broader anti-immigration platform.

Still, the shift in Americans’ views on the border during Biden’s presidency suggests he may have the harder task in convincing voters that his approach is sound. While Trump’s tenure was marked by traumatic scenes of migrant families being separated and pitched political battles over his proposed border wall, recent polls suggest Americans have come to see his restrictive approach to immigration more favorably.

A YouGov poll conducted for the Economist earlier this month, for example, found that 62 percent of Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of immigration, with only 29 percent approving.

Voters prefer Trump to Biden on handling immigration by a 2-to-1 margin (52 percent to 26 percent), according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll of voters in six swing states. That poll also found 58 percent of voters saying undocumented immigrants in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status while 42 percent said they should be deported to the countries they came from.

Biden, after recent movements that courted — and angered — each side, is bracing for tough questions at the debate, according to aides and advisers, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the event.

This is not a new challenge for the president. Biden took office promising a more humane approach after Trump’s harsh policies, but a record surge of migrants at the border has provided fodder for Trump to attack his rival on a matter that has long been central to the former president’s “Make America Great Again” pitch.

Of late, Biden has sought to take a tougher line on border security, saying that the “goodwill of the American people is wearing thin right now.” He backed a bipartisan bill several months ago that would have effectively shut down the border if illegal crossings surpassed 5,000 a day.

But Republicans, encouraged by Trump, blocked that bill, some saying they wanted to prevent Biden from neutralizing the volatile political issue. In response, Biden recently issued an executive order to block migrants’ access to the U.S. asylum system when illegal border crossings exceed 2,500 a day.

“We must face a simple truth: To protect America as a land that welcomes immigrants, we must first secure the border and secure it now,” Biden said on June 4 as he announced the new restrictions.

While liberals and immigration advocates slammed the order as caving to Trump’s anti-immigrant approach, the president’s aides said he had little choice but to address an issue that is causing increasing anxiety among voters.

Aides suggest Biden will go into the debate ready to aggressively spar with Trump on immigration. He has accused the former president of playing politics on the issue, seeking to exploit the divisive problem rather than solve it. At the same time, Biden has cast other White House actions — including the move last week to protect more than 500,000 undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens — as pragmatic, effective and humane.

“There’s a huge opportunity here to take control of the immigration narrative,” said Matt A. Barreto, a pollster for the Biden campaign focusing on Latinos. “Biden can now say, ‘You have done nothing except say crazy things. I’m the one taking action. I’ve secured the border, decreased migrant crossings, and now I’m providing relief so we can keep families together.’”

Specifically, Biden plans to draw a contrast between his recent executive action and Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents, according to advisers.

Republicans predict such arguments are unlikely to sway voters, who trust Trump far more on immigration, and even many Democrats say the most Biden can hope for is to modestly blunt his opponent’s advantage. Even as migrant crossings have declined in recent weeks, Trump has increased his focus on the issue, zeroing in on specific cases of violent crimes allegedly committed by men who crossed the border during Biden’s presidency.

At rallies and in social media posts, Trump has telegraphed the kind of attacks he plans to launch Thursday.

“We have a new Biden Migrant Killing — It’s only going to get worse, and it’s all Crooked Joe Biden’s fault,” Trump wrote last week on his Truth Social website, posting a news report about two Venezuelan migrants charged with killing a 12-year-old girl in Houston. “I look forward to seeing him at the Fake Debate on Thursday. Let him explain why he has allowed MILLIONS of people to come into our Country illegally!”

Trump’s focus on such individual cases comes at a time when violent crime overall has been declining, and Biden has pointed to data showing immigrants are less likely to break the law than native-born citizens. But those statistics have not shielded the president from voter angst over his immigration policies, something Trump aides say the former president will seize on when the two men share a stage.

“In every poll, Americans trust President Trump over Joe Biden on immigration, and the majority of Americans support President Trump’s plans for mass deportations,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said in a statement that also blasted Biden for the national security risks and economic costs ostensibly associated with record border crossings.

“Americans are tired of being put last — and President Trump will put our citizens first again by taking day one action to shut down the southern border and deport Biden’s illegal aliens,” she said.

Aides to Biden say Trump’s rhetoric on immigration often veers into extremism and that Thursday’s debate will allow Americans to see firsthand the former president’s embrace of racist ideas, turning off Latinos and moderates. Biden has used his platform lately to quote Trump’s most incendiary comments about foreigners.

Trump has claimed immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of America, falsely accused Biden of facilitating a “holocaust” of missing migrant children and tarred broad groups of immigrants with dehumanizing language.

During a speech to Christian conservatives on Saturday, Trump suggested that “a migrant league of fighters” could be created in which immigrants would be pitted against each other for entertainment.

Biden should not shy away from confronting Trump about such language, said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. “There is a huge, huge pitfall for Trump in going full-bore xenophobia on this,” she said.

Biden’s allies also hope Thursday’s format will highlight Trump’s positions on immigration and repel moderate voters.

There will be no studio audience at the debate, and microphones for each candidate will be shut off when they do not have the floor. Without the vocal response of an applauding crowd or the ability to interrupt his rival, Trump could have a difficult time selling his arguments about migrant crime and mass deportations, said Barreto.

“Trump is going to have to convince Americans that the immigrants they know are murderers and killers and rapists,” he said. “And outside of maybe a quarter of his base, the rest of the American public does not believe that.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post