EL PASO, Texas—As Air Force One landed for Joe Biden’s first visit to the border as President on Sunday, the governor of Texas was on the tarmac waiting for him.
Republican Greg Abbott, who has spent Texas state funds in recent months to bus migrants to Washington, D.C., greeted the President at the bottom of the stairs and then handed him a letter saying his visit was “two years late,” and that the “chaos” enveloping the border was his fault for failing to enforce immigration laws.
Biden took the letter, folded it and rolled it in his hand as he and the governor spoke for about a minute on the tarmac. The first greeting of his trip was emblematic of the response Biden’s handling of immigration is getting from just about all sides, as he works to strike a balance between the harsh and inhumane enforcement practices of his predecessor and the more welcoming posture he touted in his campaign speeches.
The President’s stop in El Paso came days after he announced a renewed plan to expel back to Mexico each month up to 30,000 migrants who had tried to cross into the country illegally and whose asylum claims were rejected. At the same time, Biden rolled out a “parole” program to allow up to 30,000 people per month into the U.S. from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. All four countries are seeing a surge in people fleeing to the United States, which has overwhelmed border officials and cities like El Paso, where Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of emergency last month. To qualify for the parole program, migrants must request lawful transit to the U.S., and have gone through a vetting process and have an American sponsor.
The new programs have angered both migrant advocates, who view it as overly harsh to people fleeing desperate circumstances, as well as advocates of tougher immigration enforcement, who see it as part of Biden’s wrongheaded approach to the problem.
The administration’s recent steps are designed to “incentivize” people to come to the U.S. lawfully and “cut out the smuggling organizations,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters on Air Force One on Sunday as it flew to El Paso. The administration is also proposing a new regulation that would penalize migrants who don’t register for asylum in the countries they move through on the way to the U.S. Some refugee advocates have described the proposal as a ban on asylum seekers. “It is not a ban at all. It is markedly different than what the Trump administration proposed,” Mayorkas said.
Biden had avoided visiting the border until Sunday, nearly two years into his Presidency. The stop in Texas was en route to Mexico City for a summit with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, in which the migrant crisis is set to be a major point of discussion. Biden wanted to see the border before meeting with Obrador on Monday, Mayorkas said.
Jim Watson—AFP via Getty ImagesBiden walks by border fencing in El Paso.
Biden’s visit included trips to the Bridge of the Americas Port of Entry and a support center for migrants. He spoke with border patrol agents, local officials and other people who work directly with migrants new to the country and with few resources. He came across few if any protesters. He did not appear to interact with any migrants.
At El Paso County’s migrant services facility, the President saw packages with socks, shoes, clothes, and sandwiches. He heard about how the center’s staff typically provides food and shelter for about 300 to 500 migrants each day, but that demand can surge to 1,000 people per day. He asked some of the workers, “If I could wave the wand, what should I do?” The answer he heard back: more funding.
Biden is pushing Congress to fund more asylum officers and immigration judges to move migrants through the system faster and clear huge case backlogs. “Instead of a safe and orderly process at the border, we have a patchwork system that simply doesn’t work as it should,” he said on Thursday in one of his first extensive speeches about the border.
As Biden tries to chart a middle course on immigration, he is widely expected to be preparing to formally launch his 2024 reelection campaign. On Friday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a likely contender for the GOP presidential nomination, activated the Florida National Guard to respond to hundreds of migrants arriving by boat to southern Florida. DeSantis, echoing the governor of Texas, said in a statement, “When Biden continues to ignore his legal responsibilities, we will step in to support our communities.”
At one point during his visit on Sunday, Biden’s motorcade took him to a section of 20-foot-high fencing on the border between El Paso and Mexico. The President spoke with Border Patrol agents as he walked along the rust-colored fence. There were no migrants in sight, and the hills of Juarez spread out on the other side. As Biden prepared to leave, a reporter shouted at the President, asking about the letter from Abbott. “I haven’t read it yet,” he answered.
Asked what he had learned during his visit to the border, Biden responded, “They need a lot of resources. We’re going to get it for them.”