President Joe Biden appears to be confounded by the substance and politics of immigration.
The latest evidence of that is Friday's laughable-if-it-wasn't-so-serious White House backtrack of Biden's walk-back on refugee policy. After promising to raise President Donald Trump's annual cap on refugee admissions from 15,000 to 62,500, Biden balked Friday morning. Then, under heavy pressure from fellow Democrats — many of whom had described Trump's policy as racist, xenophobic and un-American — Biden decided Friday afternoon to increase the number of refugees admitted into the country.
How many? "His initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement issued late Friday. The policy, she said, "has been the subject of some confusion."
That confusion is coming from inside the White House.
It is the result of a much larger conundrum for Biden: finding the safe-harbor spot on immigration that satisfies his base and doesn't alienate centrist voters. He'll never win over hard-line conservatives whose views are represented by a new Anglo-Saxon caucus in the House or more temperate conservatives who prioritize restrictive immigration policies.
But even if he doesn't seek re-election in 2024, he needs both wings of his own coalition to move his agenda and keep Congress in Democratic hands in next year's midterm elections.
So far, Biden is not just failing to please everyone; he's having a hard time pleasing anyone. Less than a quarter of adults approve of his handling of immigration at the southern border, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released last week, and the share of Democrats who view illegal immigration as "a major problem" has spiked from 15 percent to 29 percent in the last year, according to the Pew Research Center.
"It's easy to promise a quick fix in a campaign, but the reality of the situation is it's a mess and they don't know how to address it," a senior Senate Republican aide said of the broader issue. The back and forth over the refugee cap "is less an indictment of policy and more a highlight of how complex and difficult this issue is," the aide added.
While the refugee policy limits legal rather than illegal immigration, Democratic lawmakers and immigrant-rights advocates are eager to see changes across the board after Trump cracked down on both forms of migration.
Biden's stumbles on the issue come at a time when a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has forced officials to house children in overcrowded facilities and forced Biden to reconsider his vow to allow asylum-seekers to await adjudication of their cases in the U.S.
Given that Biden's overall approval ratings remain squarely on positive turf — roughly between 54 percent and 59 percent, depending on the poll — sentiments on his handling of immigration could be insignificant to his standing or a harbinger of trouble ahead. His skittish approach to the issue suggests more concern about the latter than confidence about the former.
Before taking office, Biden said he wanted to reverse Trump's immigration policies but would set up "guardrails" to ensure that he didn't act rashly in a way that "complicates what we're trying to do." He issued an executive order creating a review of Trump's policies shortly after being sworn in, but has thus far left many of them in place.
Until Friday, Biden's Democratic allies had been reserved in their criticism of his moves, hopeful that he will ultimately implement an immigration agenda that more closely approximates campaign-trail rhetoric envisioning "an immigration system that powers our economy and reflects our values." Then the dam broke with news of his initial decision to leave the Trump refugee cap in place.
"Say it ain't so, President Joe," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement. "This Biden Administration refugee admissions target is unacceptable."
One Latino-rights advocate who has been in discussions with White House officials on immigration policy told NBC News last month that the administration did not appear to have a plan on the issue. The advocate spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering allies in the White House. But activists have had to lean on their faith in Biden's intent to reverse Trump's policies as they wait for action.
Democratic officials' response to the initial refugee cap decision is a sign that their patience is fleeting.
"We can’t allow refugees and asylum-seekers to sit and suffer because of Washington politics," former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said. "I’m glad the administration has reversed course on lifting the refugee cap. It should be done immediately and up to the target promised."
Biden's timidity reflects confusion over how to line up his stated policy goals with his political interests.