WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden heads to the US-Mexico border on Sunday, his first trip there as president after two years of harassment by Republicans who softly hit him with border security strikes as the number of migrants crossing the border, grows in a spiral.
Biden must spend several hours in El Paso, Texas, which is currently the largest corridor for illegal border crossings, in large part due to the fact that Nicaraguans are fleeing repression, crime and poverty in their country. They are among migrants from four countries who are now subject to swift removal under new rules passed by the Biden administration last week, drawing sharp criticism from immigration advocates.
The president is expected to meet with border officials to discuss migration, as well as the rise in trafficking in fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, which are causing a skyrocketing number of overdoses in the US.
Biden will visit the El Paso County Migrant Services Center and meet with non-profit and religious groups that support migrants coming to the US. It’s unclear if Biden will talk to any migrants.
“The president is very keen to see firsthand what the security situation looks like at the border,” said John Kirby, White House national security spokesman. “That’s what he wanted to see for himself.”
But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ridiculed Biden’s actions. “All he’s going to do there is rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic. He is not going to push for any solution that will make the border safer and more secure and stop illegal immigration,” he told Fox News.
Biden’s border security statement and visit to the border are partly intended to quell the political noise and soften the fallout from the upcoming immigration investigations promised by Republicans in the House of Representatives. But any long-term solution will require the action of a sharply divided Congress, where in recent years numerous attempts to bring about sweeping change have failed.
From El Paso, Biden will continue south to Mexico City, where he and the leaders of Mexico and Canada will gather on Monday and Tuesday for a North American leaders’ summit. Immigration is on the agenda.
The challenge facing the US on its southern border “is not unique to the United States. It takes over the hemisphere. And a regional problem requires a regional solution,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Majorcas said on ABC’s This Week before joining Biden on the trip.
In El Paso, where migrants gather at bus stops and in parks ahead of their trip, border guards have stepped up security ahead of Biden’s visit.
“I think they’re trying to send a message that they’re going to be more consistent with people’s document status, and if you haven’t been processed, they’re going to pick you up,” said Ruben Garcia of the Annunciation House in El Paso aid group.
Migrants and asylum seekers fleeing violence and persecution are increasingly finding that protection in the United States is available primarily to those with the money or the savvy to find someone to vouch for them financially.
José Natera, a Venezuelan migrant in El Paso who hopes to find asylum in Canada, said he has no chance of finding a sponsor in the US and that he now doesn’t want to seek asylum in the US because he fears being sent to Mexico.
Mexico is “a terrible country where there is crime, corruption, cartels and even you are being chased by the police,” he said. “They say that those who think about entering illegally will not stand a chance, but at the same time, I have no sponsor. … I came to this country to work. I didn’t come here to play.”
The number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border has skyrocketed in Biden’s first two years in office. During the year ending September 30, there were over 2.38 million stops, the first time the number had exceeded 2 million. The administration has struggled to close the crossings, unwilling to take harsh measures that would resemble those of the Trump administration.
The policy change, announced last week, is Biden’s biggest move to curb illegal border crossings and will deter tens of thousands of migrants arriving at the border. At the same time, 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela will be able to legally come to the US if they travel by plane, get a sponsor and pass background checks.
The US will also turn away migrants who do not first seek asylum in the country through which they traveled en route to the US.
Some have welcomed the change, especially the leaders of cities where migrants have flocked. But Biden has come under fire from immigrant advocacy groups, who have accused him of taking action along the lines of the former president’s.
“I don’t agree with comparing us to Donald Trump,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, pointing to some of his most slanderous policies, including separating migrant children from their parents.
“This is not the president,” she said.
In all his international travel in his 50 years of public service, Biden hasn’t spent much time on the US-Mexico border.
The only visit the White House could point to was Biden’s drive to the border during his 2008 presidential campaign. was not the center of crossroads, as it is now.
President Barack Obama traveled in 2011 to El Paso, where he visited border operations and the Paso del Norte International Bridge, but was later criticized for not returning when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors crossed the U.S. border from Mexico .
Trump, who has made tougher immigration a major issue, has traveled to the border several times. During one visit, he huddled at a small border checkpoint to inspect money and drugs confiscated by agents. During a trip to McAllen, Texas, which at the time was the center of a growing crisis, he made one of his most frequently repeated claims that Mexico would pay to build a border wall.
American taxpayers ended up paying the bill after Mexican leaders vehemently rejected the idea.
“NO,” then-President of Mexico Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted in May 2018. Mexico will NEVER pay for a wall. Not now, not ever. Sincerely, Mexico (all of us).”
Associated Press writer Morgan Lee of Santa Fe, New Mexico contributed to this report.