The presidential motorcade left the Bridge of the Americas and sped west along the border highway that looms over the colorful houses in the Juarez Hills.
The motorcade came to a sudden stop along a Paisano that only an El Paso resident would know about: a dead end near an old Hacienda restaurant, where a rusty steel mesh fence snakes along the Rio Grande.
The route gave the president a clear picture of Mexico, demonstrating the undeniable proximity of the United States’ southern neighbor.
While presidential visits are often laden with symbolism, the stops Biden made on Sunday during a four-hour visit to El Paso highlighted the administration’s gingerbread approach to immigration and border security and its recognition of the importance of Mexico ahead of this week’s summit in Mexico. Town.
Politicians often use the US-Mexican border as a backdrop, and critics inevitably ridicule such visits as a “photo shoot.” But the way elected officials interact with the border is one way they try to visualize their politics.
Biden met with local officials, including the mayor, district judge and congressman. He visited the Bridge of the Americas and witnessed demonstrations of searches of commercial and passenger vehicles. He spent time with non-profit leaders who fed and sheltered migrants amid a months-long humanitarian crisis that left many migrants homeless in the city.
“He had a very direct question about me: how can I help?” said John Martin, deputy director of the Homeless Opportunity Center, which has provided shelter for migrants in recent months.
According to local officials, the president promised resources.
It is unclear whether Biden met with the migrants or witnessed their plight. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
El Paso has been under a state of emergency since Dec. 17 as it faced a historic number of asylum seekers and other migrants crossing the border into the city.
“The President knows what’s going on in El Paso,” El Paso Mayor Oscar Lizer said at a press conference following Biden’s departure. “He already knew what was going on and what our problems were and what they were… He said, ‘That’s what I do. That’s what I’m working on.”
“What this community needs”
The federal government has reimbursed or reimbursed local government spending on migrant assistance, including $6 million each for the city and county. But local nonprofits that provide shelter and food have seen their bills piling up without federal refunds.
Food bank El Pasoans Fighting Hunger filed for a $500,000 federal refund for food they handed out to migrants in 2022; the homeless shelter asked for $28,000. The current federal aid mechanism requires nonprofits to only help migrants who can prove legal status, which runs counter to the shelter and food bank’s mission of helping those in need.
At the county migrant service center, U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar of El Paso introduced Biden to Martin and food bank executive Susan Goodell. Biden shook hands and then leaned in as Martin answered his question.
“My response, although brief, was the need for a special migrant shelter for people of mixed status, registered and unregistered,” Martin said, and to fund migrant assistance regardless of a person’s legal status.
“I had a question for him: is it possible to make an exception for border communities? So that someone has the financial resources to maintain such a shelter?” Martin said. “When you looked at him and his face, he was genuinely interested in the answer.”
The president arrived in El Paso just as the city is experiencing a lull in migration.
US Customs and Border Protection sees an average of 700 migrants daily, up from a peak late last year of more than 2,500 per day.
Lizer said he had a one-on-one conversation with Biden and showed him an album of photographs he took documenting the migration crisis in downtown.
“I wanted the president to see what I see with my own eyes,” Lizer said. “It’s something he couldn’t see in a day, and I’ve been watching it for months. People sleeping at the airport, people sleeping on the streets of downtown El Paso, people crossing the river or lining up by the river. … We had a short break in the room and talked and talked about what this community needs.”
If the president wanted to speak directly to migrants, that opportunity would be at the county migrant center, where he met with Martin and Goodell. But a county spokesman confirmed that by the time Biden arrived, all migrants had been processed and relocated.
Walk along the border fence
Biden’s visit echoed that of the president he served and highlighted the intractability of the problems he says he is working to solve.
When Barack Obama visited El Paso in 2011, he visited the Bridge of the Americas and saw a demonstration of CBP officers looking for contraband using K-9 and technology. Biden did the same.
CBP El Paso Field Operations Director Hector Mancha and El Paso Port Director Ray Provencio led Biden through demonstrations outside the commercial cargo bays of one of El Paso’s busiest ports of entry. Customs officers explained how the drugs hide in secret compartments cut into the parts of cars and how technology helps them check the contents of tractor-trailers.
When Biden left the port and arrived at the border at Paisano, he walked along the fence north of the Rio Grande with border patrol agents dressed in green uniforms. He heard about what they needed and he promised to deliver.
The river was hidden by hedges and tall bushes growing on a rampart south of it, but muddy ground and fallen reeds hinted that it was close. And that Mexico, whose cooperation is fundamental to Biden’s latest border policy, was just over the top.
More than a decade ago, Obama gave a speech in Chamizal National Park with Mexico in the background. He called on Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws.
Biden did not give a speech or press conference. He reached out to a wider audience: on social media, he said after his visit, “To really fix our broken immigration system, Congress needs to act.”