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Opinion: In a two-issue election, Biden should act now on immigration

Opinion by Fareed Zakaria

(CNN) — Bill Maher recently said on his show that the 2024 election was going to be fought over two issues: immigration and abortion. The party that best navigates these cultural battlefields is likely to prevail in November.

Each party has an advantage, the Democrats on abortion and the Republicans on immigration. Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, energized generations of conservative voters who felt deeply on the issue but were also outraged that courts had taken the question out of the democratic process.

Now, it’s abortion rights voters who are energized, fueled by states like Arizona that are putting in place draconian restrictions on abortion. With the margins small in many swing states, abortion could be the issue that brings out suburban women, who could tilt those states blue in November.

On the other hand, the Republican Party is now led by former President Donald Trump, who — on this issue as on many others — is supremely opportunistic. Trump, of course, proudly supported abortion rights for years until he started flirting with a political career within the Republican Party, at which point he reversed course fully.

Now that he sees it is politically problematic, he is shifting his stance once again. He has criticized Arizona’s abortion ban and has pledged not to sign a national abortion ban if re-elected.

It might seem hard for him to backtrack; he has loudly taken credit for the repeal of Roe v. Wade and touted his anti-abortion credentials. But Trump seems able to say anything, and even do anything, without losing the cult-like following he has with Republican voters. He can appeal to the middle ground, certain that his base will stay with him.

President Joe Biden, on the other hand, does not have the fanatical following that Trump does. He has constructed a coalition carefully appealing to different groups with specific policies. If he loses one of those groups, his team fears that the math will not add up come Election Day.

But he needs to risk it and get tougher on immigration. It has become a proxy for all kinds of issues where people feel that elites simply don’t get the concerns of average people. And the concern is rooted in real facts on the ground.

The US has taken in huge numbers of immigrants over the last five decades. In 1970, foreign-born people made up 5.7% of the country. As of 2020, that number was 15.3%. And it’s not just America. In Sweden, that number went from 6.6% in 1970 to 19.8% in 2020; in the UK, from 5.3% to 13.8%. As I note in my new book, “Age of Revolutions,” the Western world has seen a wave of unprecedented migration. Considering the numbers and the cultural diversity of the immigrants, people have been remarkably tolerant.

In both the EU and the United States, gangs and cartels have recognized that they can game the asylum system by bringing in migrants who are moving for economic reasons but who apply for asylum, claiming that they are being persecuted at home — and thus get the right to stay, have legal hearings and eventually work. Last fiscal year, nearly a million people applied for asylum in the US. In the EU last year, that number was more than 1.1 million.

The waves of recent migrants have produced problems as anyone on the ground can confirm, from New York City to El Paso to Stockholm. Sweden today is home to one of the highest gun crime death rates in Europe. And it is not a coincidence that its second largest political party is one that traces its roots to World War II-era fascism.

The Biden administration has made the case that it has put in place a set of well-crafted policies to limit asylum-seekers, that it needs Congressional action to do more and that Republicans want this problem to fester so that they can reap its electoral benefits. (They even tried to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on utterly bogus charges. The Democratic-majority Senate quickly put a stop to that effort.) All true.

But Biden must show he can fight. He should declare a national security emergency, send the National Guard to the border, work with Congress to suspend the asylum process and propose a new one that basically makes it impossible to get asylum if you just show up at the border. Many will scream, and it will all be challenged in court. But it will signal that Biden is taking the problem seriously.

Bill Clinton often says that the American people don’t always need you to succeed, but they want to catch you trying. Joe Biden needs to be caught trying to solve the immigration crisis.

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