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Haitian migrants: Biden administration carries out an aerial expulsion campaign of historic proportions
By September 24, U.S. authorities had cleared the large encampment of mostly Haitian migrants near the Rio Grande in Del Rio, south-central Texas. Between September 9 and then, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told Border Report, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol had encountered 30,000 migrants in CBP’s once-quiet Del Rio Sector, most of them from Haiti.
According to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, 8,000 of these 30,000 crossed back into Mexico. About 13,000 were processed into the United States: about 3,000 sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, and about 10,000—presumably mostly families with children—released into the U.S. interior to pursue asylum claims in the U.S. immigration system. As of the middle of this week, about 4,000 were still in DHS custody being processed, at which point officials would determine whether migrants get released, detained, or expelled, under the “Title 42” pandemic authority, back to Haiti without a chance to seek asylum.
It is not clear how DHS is determining which migrants get released, detained, or expelled. “Officials have said families with vulnerabilities could be exempted from Title 42 (pregnancy, medical issues),” tweeted Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News. Another factor in favor of release, the New York Times indicated, is the ability to “produce evidence of a friend or relative who could help provide a foothold.”
The Biden administration’s effort to expel as many Haitians as possible has been massive. By the end of September 30, the U.S. government had expelled 6,131 Haitians on 57 flights to Port-au-Prince or the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti over 12 days. Seven flights landed on September 30 alone, discharging 773 expelled Haitians. Of the first 50 flights, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported, 32 had gone to the capital and 18 to Cap-Haïtien. About 44 percent of those expelled were women and children.
In the 12 months before September, ICE ran 57 removal flights to Haiti, according to the count kept by Witness at the Border. We have now seen 57 flights in 12 days.
More than 210 of the children expelled with their Haitian parents were born in Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, or Panama. Nearly all of the Haitians who arrived in Del Rio had not lived in Haiti in a long time: they had migrated to South America in the years after a 2010 earthquake devastated their home country. Many found Brazil and Chile, in particular, to be inhospitable, with legal status difficult to obtain or maintain. (Anti-migrant sentiment, in this case against Venezuelans, erupted in Chile’s northern city of Iquique on September 25. A march against migrants grew violent as protesters built a bonfire of homeless Venezuelans’ belongings.)
The journey from South America leads up through Panama’s Darién Gap jungles, Central America, and Mexico. Analysts and local officials voiced surprise that such a large number of migrants could cross Mexico, and arrive in the small city of Ciudad Acuña across from Del Rio, in such a short time. What we know is that the migrants crossed Mexico in small groups, often taking public transportation and paying a premium in artificially high fares, and in bribes at Mexican authorities’ road checkpoints. Writing for Politico, Jack Herrera reports that a rumor spread among Haitians that U.S. authorities were allowing crossings in Calexico, California, and Del Rio, and that September 16—Mexico’s bicentennial independence day, when authorities might be distracted—would be a good time to travel.
Giuseppe Loprete, the head of the IOM mission in Haiti, noted Haitians’ extreme anguish upon return to a country that most had fled years earlier. “They’re very distressed,” he told CBS. “They start crying the moment they arrive. I’ve seen young, strong guys—some freak out. Women cry. Kids cry because they see the women crying.” IOM is distributing meals, toiletries and a roughly $100 per person stipend to returned Haitians, and is testing them for COVID-19, which the U.S. government does not do. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) “said it is providing $5.5 million to IOM so it can serve deported Haitians,” according to CBS.
Ultimately, though, Haitians arriving in Port-au-Prince are being ushered out of the airport into what the Associated Press calls “an archipelago of gang-controlled islands in a sea of despair.” A strong statement from IOM and three UN agencies paints a very grim picture of an already-struggling country, the hemisphere’s poorest, that since July has seen its president assassinated, a devastating earthquake, and a tropical storm:
Haiti continues to face an escalation in violence and insecurity, with at least 19,000 people internally displaced in the capital Port-au-Prince in the summer of 2021 alone. Well over 20 per cent of girls and boys have been victims of sexual violence. In addition, nearly 24 per cent of the population, including 12.9 percent who are children, live below the extreme poverty line of US$1.23 per day. Some 4.4 million people, or nearly 46 per cent of the population, face acute food insecurity.
IOM, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) called “on states to refrain from expelling Haitians without proper assessment of their individual protection needs,” recalling that “International law prohibits collective expulsions and requires that each case be examined individually to identify protection needs under international human rights and refugee law.” That is the opposite of how Title 42, which affords no opportunity to ask for asylum, is operating.
Reuters reports that IOM asked Brazil to receive some Haitians who have Brazilian-citizen children, or who passed through Brazil on their way north through South America. Two sources “said the first request was more likely to be approved.” A DHS statement notes that the agency is engaging with Brazil and Chile “to ensure they too are doing their part to offer protection for vulnerable populations and receive individuals who had legal status there.”
That statement adds that DHS Secretary Mayorkas met on September 28 with Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond. Mayorkas thanked Haiti’s government “for supporting the safe return and re-integration of Haitian nationals.” He added that investigations of mistreatment of Haitian migrants “is ongoing”; Edmond had raised the shocking and widely shared photos and videos of mounted Border Patrol agents running down migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio.
No State Department official of similar rank was present at the Haitian ambassadorial meeting, but the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, traveled to Port-au-Prince September 30 with the National Security Council’s director for the hemisphere, Juan González. The visit appeared mostly focused on Haiti’s political impasse; the Miami Herald reported that “the duo said they had no agenda other than to listen to Haitians.”
Haitians in Mexico
Mexico’s government carried out its first removal flight to Haiti in some time, flying 70 Haitian migrants, including 13 minors, to Port-au-Prince on September 29. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) called this an “assisted voluntary return” of Haitians who desired to go back to their country, or who at least had not voiced a desire to seek asylum in Mexico. It referred to those aboard as “the first group,” but it is not clear how frequently the INM plans to run these flights. Mexico reported deporting 223 Haitians in the first 8 months of 2021, 138 of them in August.
This flight occurred after a September 23-24 visit of Haitian authorities to Mexico’s southern border zone, where they toured INM installations and agreed to re-activate aerial removals. Those aboard the September 29 flight had been living in the southern border state of Tabasco, or in central Mexico. They had not been to the U.S. border, and had not been living in the southern border-zone city of Tapachula, where most Haitians in Mexico are currently stranded as they await decisions from the country’s backlogged asylum system.
Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, told a committee of the country’s senate that his government plans to provide refuge to about 13,255 Haitian citizens. “What will Mexico’s position be? That those who want refugee status will be granted it. Mexico is one of the countries that least rejects refugee status,” Ebrard said. The chief diplomat condemned excessive use of force by INM agents and National Guard personnel in the southern state of Chiapas in early September.
As noted in our September 3 and 10 updates, photo and video evidence showed Mexican personnel kicking, beating, and aggressively chasing Haitian migrants who had sought to walk northward from Tapachula, a city of 350,000 that offers them few income opportunities while they await asylum decisions from COMAR, Mexico’s refugee agency. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights added its condemnation, and urged Mexico to hold responsible personnel accountable, in a September 27 statement.
COMAR is taking steps to speed asylum processing in Tapachula, where 55,000 people had requested asylum between January and August. For the next four weeks, COMAR is managing a reception center outside Tapachula’s soccer stadium, where it plans to process 2,000 people per day, using about 200 staff, many seconded over from other agencies.
In August, Chiapas Paralelo estimated that as many as 30,000 Haitians were stranded near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, especially in the city of Tapachula. After so many fled to Del Rio, it’s not clear how many remain in Tapachula awaiting COMAR’s response; the agency is requiring all to check in at the stadium in order to remove inactive cases from its giant backlog.
On October 1 Andrés Ramírez, COMAR’s coordinator, tweeted that 90,314 people had requested asylum in Mexico between January and September, shattering the country’s previous full-year record of 70,423 set in 2019. At this pace, Ramírez pointed out, Mexico will receive 120,000 asylum requests by the end of 2021. More than one-third of Mexico’s asylum seekers so far this year are Honduran (31,884), followed by Haiti (26,007), Cuba (7,683), El Salvador (5,170), and Venezuela (4,670). COMAR also shows 3,591 Chileans and 1,691 Brazilians: many of these are probably children born in those countries to Haitian parents.
Haitians who remain in and around Ciudad Acuña, across from Del Rio, are under strong pressure from Mexican authorities to relocate or return to Tapachula, to await COMAR’s decisions on their status. INM has arranged transport for many to return to the southern city. Reuters notes that a growing number of Haitians are arriving elsewhere at Mexico’s northern border: in Tijuana, where a few thousand of their fellow citizens settled after a 2016 migration event. This population is generally doing well economically, but “most are wary of going public about their achievements lest it cause them problems with migration authorities or attract the attention of organized crime.”
Elsewhere in northern Mexico, in Tampico, Tamaulipas, some Haitian migrants protested outside the local INM office demanding that they be granted some legal status, without which the city’s hotels are prohibited from even renting them rooms.
The Darién Gap
Further south along the migration route, perhaps 17,000 to 19,000 people, mostly Haitians, remain crowded into the small Caribbean coast city of Necoclí, Colombia. For migrants who wish to pass through Panama and northward, Necoclí is where the road ends. Migrants must take a ferry across northwestern Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá, then cross into eastern Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles.
Our September 10 update noted that 11,400 migrants were in Necoclí, with the town’s mayor predicting that “by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants.” That prediction wasn’t far off.
An agreement between Colombia and Panama is allowing ferries to take 500 people per day to Panama—but estimates of the number of people newly arriving in Necoclí range from 1,000 to 1,200 to 1,500, so the population in Necoclí keeps growing as the wait time for a ferry passage stretches through the end of October. That means a month camped on the town’s beach or paying $10 a night for a shared room, as townspeople charge migrants high prices for food, water, restroom access, and supplies for the journey through Panama. Some migrants are paying smugglers to take them across the Gulf clandestinely.
A handful of Haitians—perhaps 250, according to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office—have decided to abandon their journey after seeing the Biden administration’s big expulsion flight push.
“So far this year,” Reuters reports, “88,514 migrants have entered Panama through the Darien jungle, according to figures from the National Migration Service, and Panama went from receiving an average of 800 migrants in January to 30,000 in August.” About 70 percent of them have been Haitian.
The idea of this many people passing through the Darién Gap is unheard of. This Connecticut-sized jungle zone, where the Pan-American highway ends and government presence is nearly zero, is notorious for the dangers it poses—both natural and criminal—to those who attempt the 60-mile, several-day walk. For a harrowing account of this region’s dangers, see “When Can We Really Rest,” an April 2020 report in California Sunday that won Canadian journalist Nadja Drost the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for feature-writing.
The Darién provincial prosecutor’s office has recorded the bodies of 41 migrants found along the region’s rivers so far this year. The Wall Street Journal, citing Doctors Without Borders and other sources, documented an epidemic of rapes of migrant women at the hands of criminals who operate freely in the zone. Still, as nearly a third of migrants U.S. authorities now encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border are coming from places other than Mexico or Central America’s northern triangle, we can expect even greater numbers of migrants from Haiti and elsewhere to attempt the journey through the Darién.
“Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 in the courts
On September 29 DHS announced its intention to issue a new memo terminating the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program. RMX was a Trump administration initiative that forced over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seeking migrants to await their immigration hearings while living in Mexican border towns for months or years. The Biden administration terminated RMX on inauguration day, and formally terminated it in a June 1 memo. However, a lawsuit from the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri convinced a Texas district judge to force the Biden administration to restart the program, and the Supreme Court left that order in place pending appeals. (See our August 27 update for the full story.)
The ruling left the Biden administration compelled to implement a policy it bitterly opposes. Opponents of RMX, who cite at least 1,500 attacks and kidnappings suffered by migrants forced to remain in Mexican border cities, have contended that the administration might satisfy the courts’ conditions by issuing a new memo terminating the program, one that does more to explain its legal reasoning. That is the step that DHS announced this week.
The “re-termination” memo won’t necessarily stop the reimplementation of RMX for the time being, however. “A new memorandum terminating MPP will not take effect until the current injunction is lifted by court order,” the September 29 DHS statement explains. In the meantime, the Department must continue to show the Texas court that it is working “in good faith” to restart the program. That means ongoing diplomatic talks with Mexico about accepting other countries’ asylum seekers again, and building up staffing and “tent court” infrastructure near border crossings to handle cases.
Speculation continues that these “good faith” efforts could lead to some sort of “Remain in Mexico lite” that forces a smaller number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, but with “better living conditions and access to attorneys,” as Politico put it.
Even with RMX on hold, the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy continues to send large numbers of would-be asylum seekers either to their home countries (like expelled Mexicans, or the massive Haiti flights) or to Mexico in the case of citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. As noted in our September 17 update, on the 16th, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that Title 42 could not be used to expel asylum-seeking families.
This victory for migrant rights groups has been followed by disappointment. Judge Sullivan delayed his ruling’s implementation for two weeks, to give the Biden administration—which used Title 42 to expel more than 92,676 family unit members between January and August—a chance to respond. On September 30, just as Sullivan’s ruling was to go into effect, a panel of three Washington, DC Circuit Court judges (appointees of Clinton, Obama, and Trump) stayed its implementation pending the outcome of the Biden administration’s appeal. As oral arguments on the appeal are scheduled for January, the Biden administration is free to expel asylum-seeking families well into 2022.
The Trump administration developed the Title 42 expulsions policy at the pandemic’s outset in March 2020, and the Biden administration has maintained it, although it no longer applies it to unaccompanied children. The policy has been roundly condemned by human rights and migrant rights groups, medical experts, and the UNHCR. Human Rights First has tracked “at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico by DHS since President Biden took office.” The ACLU led the litigation to stop its application to families, leading to Judge Sullivan’s September 16 ruling.
Officials like DHS Secretary Mayorkas insist that Title 42—which allows quick expulsions and thus less contact with possibly infected migrants—remains necessary due to COVID-19’s continued prevalence. “The pandemic is not behind us. Title 42 is a public health policy, not an immigration policy,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press on September 26. Mayorkas told a September 27 Migration Policy Institute conference that the migrant population has had “a rate of illness of approximately 20 percent.”
Mayorkas has publicly insisted that Title 42 is a public health measure and not an “immigration policy.” CBS News notes, though, that “in a court filing Monday [September 27] defending the continued enforcement of Title 42, Justice Department lawyers called the expulsion policy ‘a significant deterrent to the entry of family units.’” On a call this week with senior DHS officials, NBC News reports, Mayorkas also speculated that a termination of Title 42 for families could lead to “a worst-case scenario in which 350,000 to 400,000 migrants cross the border in October,” roughly double the high migration totals of July and August.
In a filing, several children’s and migrants’ rights groups urged the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the court order forcing the Biden administration to reinstate RMX, citing the number of children that the program had subjected to “gang violence, attempted kidnappings and unsanitary conditions.” A September 28 Noticias Telemundo report published horrific accounts of torture, rape, and kidnapping suffered by more than 30 migrants expelled into Mexico between 2019 and 2021. Expulsions have also led to the death of asylum seekers who see no choice but to re-enter the United States. “Maria Eugenia Chavez, a Mexican national who twice crossed the border and asked the Border Patrol to file an asylum claim only to be returned to Mexico under Title 42, drowned off the coast of San Diego when the boat she was on fell apart on her third attempt to cross the border,” reads a September 28 tweet from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.
The ACLU vows to continue pushing the Title 42 case. “I think litigation is as important in holding the feet to the fire of our quote ‘allies’ [in the Biden administration] as it is about fighting the foes of civil liberties and civil rights, because that is what creates the political will,” Executive Director Anthony Romero told the Associated Press. “The policies that they [Biden administration officials] are actively pursuing are very different than the ones they promised,” added Todd Schulte of FWD.us. “The policies they are actively pursuing are failing. Yet the continued direction is in the wrong direction.”
Texas’s crackdown overwhelms its courts
In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has loudly criticized the Biden administration’s border and migration policy from the right, the state government continues its own crackdown on migration. Abbott will double the Texas National Guard presence along the border, using state funds, to about 2,500 guardsmen by the end of October. Even after the Del Rio migrant camp was cleared, the Texas National Guard left 70 Humvees “prepositioned in the area in case a similar situation arises,” Stars and Stripes reported.
The guardsmen are in addition to a federal force of 3,500 National Guardsmen deployed along the entire border since 2018 to support CBP. The Texas Military Department posted a request for volunteers on social media, offering guardsmen who join the effort lodging and a $55 daily per diem. The Texas force will be building border barriers—a 10-foot chain link fence—mainly on private land with border landowners’ permission. About three miles of fence have been built so far. This is all part of a $2 billion program of enhanced border security measures that Abbott, who is up for re-election in 2022, calls “Operation Lone Star.”
As part of that operation, National Guard troops—who are rarely given arrest authority on U.S. soil—arrested more than 2,000 undocumented border crossers, and reported seeing another 200 turn back into Mexico, in just the past week, a Texas official said on September 30. While Texas cannot charge its detainees with violating federal immigration law, it has jailed at least 1,000 single men since June for state crimes, nearly always trespassing. Detained migrants are being held in two prisons in central and south Texas (Dilley and Edinburg). As of September 27, the state prisons were holding more than 900.
This has not been an orderly process. On September 28 the state was forced to release 243 jailed migrants because they had not been formally charged with any crime within the 15-day deadline state law requires. The delay usually owes to the Texas state police force’s (Department of Public Safety) inability to produce arrest reports without long delays.
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid came to an agreement with counties’ prosecutors to release the migrants, 168 of whom had been held without charges for more than 30 days. Most don’t speak English and have “spent weeks or months with little to no legal help, few opportunities to talk to their families and often fewer chances to find out what is happening to them or how long they will be imprisoned,” the Texas Tribune reported.
Once Texas releases migrants—whether because they were uncharged, or because they have finished serving their jail time—they don’t necessarily end up in ICE custody; some may be released into the U.S. interior. “It is not clear how many people Immigration and Customs Enforcement might choose to take into custody, and the agency did not immediately clarify,” the Washington Post reported.
On another legal front, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody filed a lawsuit September 28 seeking for the Biden administration to stop the practice of releasing migrants with pending cases, including asylum seekers, into the U.S. interior. This suit would seem to contradict laws giving DHS discretion about whom to detain, and legal precedents (like the 1997 Flores settlement agreement) limiting child and family detention. But the U.S. legal system has issued some surprising rulings on immigration lately, so it’s impossible to say with certainty that this legal challenge won’t move forward.
- For the second time, the Senate’s Parliamentarian has dealt a blow to Democrats’ efforts to use budget legislation to allow about 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to apply for legal status. This proposal, Elizabeth MacDonough ruled, was not sufficiently budget-related. As a result, under Senate rules, the immigration legislation would need 60 votes to stop debate and move to a vote—that is, to block a Republican “filibuster.” Democrats hold 50 seats in the 100-seat Senate. Senate Democratic leaders are weighing next steps.
- Citing Freedom of Information Act documents that he had to fight to obtain, Bob Moore of El Paso Matters found that CBP often turned away asylum seekers at the El Paso port of entry in 2018, claiming they were “at capacity” even when the port had plenty of available space to hold them. “We knew, we knew, we knew (that the capacity explanation was untrue), and there was nothing that we could do about it,” said Ruben Garcia of El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter.
- “Migrant deaths from border wall falls have increased from four in 2020 to 12 this year as replacement border wall barriers increased in size under former President Donald Trump, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition statistics,” writes Pedro Rios of the American Friends Services Committee. “There have also been hundreds of injuries, according to the Mexican Consulate. In a meeting between local San Diego advocates and then-Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in June 2018, which I attended, Scott shared that the Border Patrol purposely chose the height of new replacement border wall after it conducted psychological tests to establish at what height an average person becomes so disoriented that he or she would stop climbing a wall—30 feet.”
- A letter to Justice Department leadership and the DHS Inspector-General from Alliance San Diego alleges that former Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, who left his post in August, is violating the Ethics in Government Act. Scott established a consulting firm in July, while still working for Border Patrol, and issued a Facebook request for CBP and ICE personnel to provide information, possibly including restricted information, “to counter the lies and misinformation that the DHS Secretary and Biden officials spew.”
- “Today, while asking me about who I was visiting on my trip, a Border Patrol agent said I was being ‘coy’ with my answers and suggested that it would be possible that I am friends with—I kid you not—Osama Bin Laden,” tweeted Abdallah Fayyad, a member of the Boston Globe’s editorial board.
- “For the past decade,” writes Border Patrol critic Garrett Graff at the Washington Post, the agency’s “heavily armed and kitted-out agents have primarily faced a much different challenge that it’s proved itself repeatedly poorly equipped to handle,” that of processing protection-seeking migrants.
- Mexico’s chief prosecutor, Alejandro Gertz Manero, met with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in Washington. “The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to work closely on criminal investigations and prosecutions of cross-border crime,” reads a Justice Department statement, “including with regard to narcotics and firearms trafficking, human smuggling and trafficking, and illicit finance and money laundering.”
- Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has lifted his hold on the nomination of Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to be the next commissioner of CBP. The nomination will begin advancing through the Senate Finance Committee (“Finance” because of CBP’s “Customs” role). Wyden had been demanding that CBP first provide information about the Trump administration’s violent deployment of border personnel to Portland, Oregon to confront protesters in 2020.
- “Relentless in its border crisis coverage, Fox News has influenced how other cable networks, such as CNN and MSNBC, talk about the border,” Sergio Muñoz of Media Matters for America said in an excellent narrative analysis by Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle. “Major news outlets characterize the border as in crisis, playing into the right-wing narrative that it is a dangerous place and under constant assault, and that Trump’s policies, which effectively ended asylum, should remain in place.”
- A new Biden Administration initiative is providing government-funded attorneys to unaccompanied children facing deportation proceedings in eight U.S. cities.
- Once released from Office of Refugee Resettlement custody to family members or sponsors in the United States, many unaccompanied children face years in “a purgatory of insecurity and, on occasion, exploitation” as they wait years for their cases to be decided, writes immigration scholar Diana Gordon at the New York Review of Books.
- Expelled migrants, among them would-be asylum seekers, held a protest south of the borderline in Nogales, Mexico, on September 25. When a few participants in the protest tried to approach the U.S. port of entry to petition for asylum, CBP shut the automatic gates, sealing off the port.
- Two Mexican military vehicles carrying 14 soldiers crossed an international bridge into El Paso after midnight on September 25. CBP detained the soldiers, processed them, and sent them back to Mexico within hours. One was found to be possessing a small amount of marijuana. “The CBP (agents) yelled at the soldiers to put their hands up and drop their weapons immediately,” a witness told Reuters.
- “Just 35% of Americans approve of [Joe] Biden’s handling of immigration, down from 43% in April, when it was already one of Biden’s worst issues,” according to a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.