EL PASO, Texas (AP) – President Joe Biden walked a muddy stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border on his first trip to the region after two years in office and inspected a busy port of entry on Sunday, a visit marked by the tense Politics has been overshadowed by immigration, while Republicans seek to blame him for record numbers of migrants entering the country.
At his first stop, the President watched border officials demonstrate in El Paso as they search vehicles for drugs, money and other contraband. Next he traveled to a dusty street with abandoned buildings and a small playground. There was a metal border fence near the road separating the US city from Ciudad Juarez. Biden walked slowly along the border wall, initially accompanied by two Border Patrol officers.
In a sign of deep tensions over immigration, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, handed Biden a letter upon his arrival in the state that said the “chaos” at the border was a “direct result” of the president’s failure to do so enforcement of federal laws. Biden later took the letter out of his jacket pocket during his tour and told reporters, “I haven’t read it yet.”
When asked what he learned from seeing the border firsthand and speaking to the officials working on it, Biden said, “You need a lot of resources. We will get them.”
Immigration has been a serious bone of contention for years, exposing both the dysfunction of the US system and the unrest in migrants’ homelands that have driven many to flee. Administration officials have tried to counter Republican criticism by saying Congress should work with them to increase funding for border security and overhaul immigration policies.
Biden spent just a few hours in the city, which is currently the largest corridor for illegal crossings, largely as a result of Nicaraguans fleeing oppression, crime and poverty in their country. They are among migrants from four countries now subject to swift deportation under new rules enacted by the Biden administration last week, which have been heavily criticized by immigration advocates.
The president was also scheduled to visit the El Paso County Migrant Services Center and meet with nonprofit and religious groups that support migrants coming to the United States. It was not clear if he would speak to migrants.
Biden’s border security announcement and visit to the border are designed in part to blunt political noise and soften the impact of upcoming immigration probes promised by House Republicans. But any lasting solution will require action from a sharply divided Congress, where several attempts at sweeping change have failed in recent years.
From El Paso, Biden was scheduled to travel further south to Mexico City, where he and leaders of Mexico and Canada will meet for a summit of North American leaders on Monday and Tuesday. Immigration is on the agenda.
In El Paso, where migrants congregate at bus stops and in parks before continuing their journey, border patrol agents stepped up security ahead of Biden’s visit.
“I think they’re trying to send a message that they’re going to be more rigorous in checking people’s documented status, and if you haven’t been processed, they’re going to pick you up,” said Ruben Garcia of the Proclamation House El Passo relief group.
Migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing violence and persecution are increasingly finding that protection in the United States is primarily available to those who have money or who are smart enough to find someone to vouch for them financially.
Venezuelan migrant Jose Castillo, who said he traveled for five months without family members from his home on Margarita Island to arrive in El Paso on December 29, said he hoped Biden “will consider us as the people who we are”.
Castillo was among a group of about 30 migrants who gathered for prayer Sunday morning outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where many of the newcomers were camped.
“We have suffered a lot since we entered the jungle of the Darien Gap and crossed Mexico. It was all a fight, a fight, a fight,” he said. “I know we’re here illegally, but please give us a chance.”
The number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border has increased dramatically in Biden’s first two years in office. In the year ended September 30, there were more than 2.38 million stops, the first time the number surpassed 2 million. The administration has struggled to crack down on transitions and is reluctant to adopt tough measures that would be similar to those of former President Donald Trump’s administration.
The policy changes announced last week are Biden’s biggest move yet to curb illegal border crossings and will turn away tens of thousands of migrants arriving at the border. At the same time, every month 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela are given the chance to enter the US legally, as long as they travel by plane, find a sponsor and pass background checks.
The US will also turn away migrants who do not first seek asylum in a country they passed through en route to the US. Migrants are asked to fill out a form in a phone app so they can go to a port of entry ahead of time.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters aboard Air Force One the government was trying to “incentivize a safe and orderly route and take out the smuggling organizations,” saying the policy was “not a ban at all” but an attempt to deter migrants to protect against the trauma that smuggling can cause.
The changes have been welcomed by some, particularly leaders in cities where migrants congregate. But Biden has been angered by immigrant advocacy groups who have accused him of taking actions modeled after those of the former president. Administration officials disputed this characterization.
For all of his international travels in his 50 years of public service, Biden hasn’t spent much time at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The only visit the White House could point to was Biden’s drive to the border while he was running for president in 2008. He sent Vice President Kamala Harris to El Paso in 2021, but she was criticized for largely bypassing the action because El Paso wasn’t the center of intersections it is now.
President Barack Obama made a trip to El Paso in 2011 to tour border operations and the Paso Del Norte International Bridge, but he was later criticized for not returning when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors entered the United States from Mexico.
Trump, who has made hardening immigration his trademark, has traveled to the border several times. On one visit, he huddled into a small border post to inspect cash and drugs seized by agents. During a trip to McAllen, Texas, then the center of a growing crisis, he made one of his most repeated claims that Mexico would pay for a border wall to be built.
In the end, American taxpayers footed the bill after Mexican leaders flatly rejected the idea.
Associated Press writers Andres Leighton in El Paso, Texas; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.
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