Miles apart, Biden and Trump tour U.S.-Mexico border highlighting immigration as an election issue

Biden, Trump lay out plans to tackle rising levels illegal migrants

Updated - March 01, 2024 07:39 am IST

Published - March 01, 2024 05:13 am IST - BROWNSVILLE, Texas

Migrants who crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico line up for processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. File

Migrants who crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico line up for processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. File | Photo Credit: AP

U.S. President Joe Biden and likely Republican challenger Donald Trump walked the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas on February 29, duelling trips underscoring how important immigration has become for the 2024 election and how much each man wants to use it to his advantage.

Each chose an optimal location to make his points, and their schedules were remarkably similar. They each got a briefing on operations and issues, walked along the border and gave remarks that overlapped. But that's where the comparisons ended.

Blame game

Mr. Biden, who sought to spotlight how Republicans tanked a bipartisan border security deal on Mr. Trump's orders, went to the Rio Grande Valley city of Brownsville. For nine years, this was the busiest corridor for illegal crossings, but they have dropped sharply in recent months.

President Joe Biden talks with the U.S. Border Patrol, as he looks over the southern border on Feb. 29, 2024, in Brownsville, Texas, along the Rio Grande.

President Joe Biden talks with the U.S. Border Patrol, as he looks over the southern border on Feb. 29, 2024, in Brownsville, Texas, along the Rio Grande. | Photo Credit: AP

The president walked a quiet stretch of the border along the Rio Grande, and received a lengthy operations briefing from Homeland Security agents who talked to him bluntly about what more they needed.

“I want the American people to know what we're trying to get done," he said to officials there. "We can't afford not to do this."

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, continued his dialled-up attacks on migrants arriving at the border, deriding them as “terrorists” and criminals. “This is a Joe Biden invasion," he said.

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump gestures to people across the Rio Grande in Mexico at Shelby Park during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 29, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump gestures to people across the Rio Grande in Mexico at Shelby Park during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 29, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas. | Photo Credit: AP

Mr. Trump was in Eagle Pass, roughly 325 miles (523 km) northwest of Brownsville, in the corridor that's currently seeing the largest number of crossings. He went to a local park that has become a Republican symbol of defiance against the federal immigration enforcement practices it mocks.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas National Guard soldiers gave him a tour, showing off razor wire they put up on Mr. Abbott's orders and in defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court order. “This is like a war,” Mr. Trump said.

Politics over illegal migrants

The number of people who are illegally crossing the U.S. border has been rising for years for complicated reasons that include climate change, war and unrest in other nations, the economy, and cartels that see migration as a cash cow.

The administration’s approach has been to pair crackdowns at the border with increasing legal pathways for migrants designed to steer people into arriving by plane with sponsors, not illegally on foot to the border.

Arrests for illegal crossings fell by half in January, but there were record highs in December. The numbers of migrants flowing across the U.S-Mexico border have far outpaced the capacity of an immigration system that has not been substantially updated in decades. Mr. Trump and Republicans claim Mr. Biden is refusing to act, but absent law change from Congress, any major policies are likely to be challenged or held up in court.

Among those voters, worries about the nation’s broken immigration system are rising on both sides of the political divide, which could be especially problematic for Biden.

According to an AP-NORC poll in January, the share of voters concerned about immigration rose to 35% from 27% last year. 55% of Republicans say the government needs to focus on immigration in 2024, while 22% of Democrats listed immigration as a priority. That’s up from 45% and 14%, respectively, from December 2022.

Mr. Trump landed to cheers from a crowd gathered at the small airport who held signs that read: “Trump 2024.” Some yelled, “Way to go, Trump.” He chatted with supporters for a few minutes before getting into his waiting SUV.

From Air Force One, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas dismissed claims the president's visit was political, and noted how badly his department that manages the U.S.-Mexico border needed extra funding that would have been contained in the collapsed bill.

“This visit is focused on the work that we do, not the rhetoric of others,” he said. “This is focused on operational needs, operational challenges and the significant impact that legislation would have in enhancing our border security.”

In a symbol of the political divide, the Republican-controlled House voted to impeach Mr. Mayorkas over the Biden administration’s handling of the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats say the charges amount to a policy dispute, not the “high crimes and misdemeanours” laid out as a bar for impeachment in the Constitution.

Since the president was last at the border a year ago, the debate over immigration in Washington has shifted further to the right. Democrats have become increasingly eager to embrace border restrictions now that migrants are sleeping in police stations and airplane hangars in major cities.

During bipartisan talks on an immigration deal that would have toughened access for migrants, Mr. Biden himself said he'd be willing to “shut down the border” right now, should the deal pass.

The talks looked promising for a while. But Mr. Trump, who didn't want to give Mr. Biden a political win on one of his signature campaign issues, persuaded Republicans to kill the deal. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., declared it dead on arrival.

Mr. Biden vowed to make sure everyone knew why. “Every day, between now and November, the American people are gonna know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends,” he said this month, referring to the former president's Make America Great Again slogan.

Trump was also to be interviewed by Fox News' Sean Hannity from Shelby Park, an expanse along the Rio Grande owned by the city of Eagle Pass.

Trump has laid out updated immigration proposals that would mark a dramatic escalation of the approach he used in office and that drew alarms from civil rights activists and numerous court challenges.

Some of those include reviving and expanding his controversial travel ban, imposing "ideological screening” for migrants, terminating all work permits and cutting off funding for shelter and transportation for people who are in the country illegally. He also is likely to bring up the killing of a 22-year-old nursing student in Georgia. The suspect is a Venezuelan migrant.

“Biden is preposterously trying to blame me and Congressional Republicans for the national security and public safety disaster he has created,” Mr. Trump wrote in an op-ed in the British newspaper The Daily Mail. “He created this catastrophe. "

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