Biden’s tougher border stance tests Latino vote in Nevada

By Thomson Reuters Feb 23, 2024 | 5:10 AM

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Talking to Latino voters in Nevada about President Joe Biden, immigration activist Rico Ocampo says one issue keeps coming up: they are disappointed at what they see as his failure to expand protections for immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

Ocampo, who works for the pro-immigrant group Make the Road Nevada, cites the example of a young Latina voter he met whose parents lacked legal immigration status. Unsure about voting for Biden, she gave the impression she might not vote at all, Ocampo said.

The encounter illustrates the challenges for Biden in Nevada – and nationally – as he tries to simultaneously appeal to the Democrat voter base in favor of immigration policies that protect asylum seekers while also courting others who want to reduce the number of illegal crossings from Mexico.

Biden took office in 2021 promising to reverse the hardline immigration policies of former Republican President Donald Trump, but has since toughened his own approach.

Under pressure from Republicans who accuse him of failing to control the border, Biden called on Congress last year to provide more enforcement funding and said he would “shut down the border” if given new authority to turn back migrants.

While that may placate moderates, it could dampen enthusiasm among more liberal Democrat voters and some Latinos.

“His tougher policies are making it extremely difficult for people on the ground that are getting out the vote,” Ocampo said.

Ocampo says he reminds voters that Trump, Biden’s likely rival in the Nov. 5 election, has promised mass deportations if reelected. By contrast, Biden supports deportation relief programs, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Ocampo himself uses to work legally.

Trump and other Republicans support stricter border controls – a top concern for their base – and have criticized Biden’s policies as overly permissive.

The issue is a crucial one in the battleground state of Nevada where nearly a third of the state’s 3.2 million residents are Hispanic and one in five are foreign-born, according to U.S. Census figures. Biden narrowly bested Trump in Nevada in 2020 with the help of Latino voters, but polls currently show Trump with an edge in the state.

Latinos are not a unified voting bloc and Republicans have made inroads with Hispanics in Nevada and elsewhere in the past decade. But a report by the liberal data analysis firm Catalist found Latino support for Democrats in Nevada remained steady from 2020 to 2022 at 60%.

Record numbers of migrants have been caught trying to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border since Biden took office in 2021, an issue Republicans have sought to wield to their advantage ahead of the election. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in January found rising concern about immigration, particularly among Republicans, as Biden’s approval rating sank to 38%.

While Biden and Trump were tied among voting-age Americans, Biden held a 10 percentage point advantage over Trump among Hispanics.


Anat Shenker-Osorio, a California-based political messaging consultant who has worked on Democratic campaigns, said Biden’s tougher border stance is not likely to win over voters who want more enforcement.

“Regardless of what Democrats promise within this framework, they’re always going to be seen as less tough,” she said.

Biden campaign sources argue their voter base will ultimately choose Biden over Trump when it comes to immigration – and that other issues such as the economy and abortion will take precedence.

A victory this month by New York Democrat Tom Suozzi in a special election to replace ousted Republican lawmaker George Santos in the U.S. House of Representatives outlined the strategy the Biden campaign thinks can help propel the president to victory, one person familiar with campaign planning told Reuters.

Republicans attacked Suozzi as soft on immigration enforcement, but Suozzi countered by highlighting his support for additional restrictions and selling himself as more solution-oriented than his Republican challenger. Suozzi also distanced himself from fellow Democrats, acknowledging that some voters thought the party needed to be tougher on the border.

“We’re feeling really good about it,” the Biden campaign source said. “If you’re going to win this argument on immigration, just like Tom Suozzi, you have to lean in.”

At the same time, the Biden campaign has painted Trump as an extremist who favors divisive policies like mass deportations and who refused to rule out revisiting his controversial migrant family separation policy.

Despite running for office in 2020 pledging to reverse many of Trump’s hardline measures, Biden’s increasingly tough stance has included adopting some Trump-like policies including raising the bar to claim asylum at the southern border.

The White House may even take additional actions to reduce illegal immigration in the coming year, two U.S. officials and a third source familiar with the matter said, requesting anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

One option it is considering is using executive authority to deny more migrants asylum at the border, the source familiar with the matter said. The move would use a legal statute that served as the basis for Trump’s travel ban policies that blocked travelers from some Muslim-majority nations and other countries, the person said.

The Biden administration is particularly interested in lowering the number of Venezuelans and families arriving at the border, the sources said, since both groups have crossed in large numbers and can be challenging to deport.

The Biden administration also has explored a “last in, first out” policy to prioritize resolving cases of recent border crossers, one of the officials said.

White House spokesperson Angelo Fernandez Hernandez declined to say whether any particular executive actions are under discussion and blamed Republicans for blocking a Biden-backed, bipartisan border security deal brokered in the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate.

The Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, has said his party would reject the deal and that it would not sufficiently reduce crossings.

Back in Nevada, the Las Vegas-based Culinary Workers Union Local 226 says its majority immigrant membership wants more pro-immigrant actions from Biden but will stand with the Democrat over Trump regardless.

Trump’s pledge to end birthright citizenship for children of immigrants in the country illegally and ramp up deportations are deeply worrying for the union’s members, said Ted Pappageorge, the union’s secretary-treasurer.

“I think there’s going to be a real pushback on all this flaming rhetoric,” he said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Deepa Babington)