EL PASO, Texas (AP) — President Joe Biden walked a muddy stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border and inspected a busy port of entry on Sunday on his first trip to the region after two years in power, a visit clouded by tense immigration policy as Republicans blame him for record number of migrants passing through the country.
During his first stop, the president observed as border agents in El Paso shown how they search vehicles for drugs, money and other contraband. Then he went to a dusty street with abandoned buildings and walked along a metal fence that separated the American city from Ciudad Juarez.
His final stop was the El Paso County Migrant Services Center — but there were no migrants in sight. Upon learning of the services offered there, he asked an aid worker, “If I could wave the wand, what would I do?
Biden’s nearly four-hour visit to El Paso was highly controlled. He did not encounter any migrants except when his motorcade drove along the border and a dozen of them lined up on the Ciudad Juárez side. His visit did not include time at a border patrol post, where migrants crossing illegally are arrested and detained before being released.
The visit seemed designed to showcase a smooth operation to process legal migrants, weed out contraband smuggling and humanely treat those who entered illegally, creating a counter-narrative to Republicans’ claims of a crisis situation equivalent to an open border.
But his visit likely did little to appease critics on both sides, including immigrant advocates who accuse him of establishing cruel policies similar to those of his hardline predecessor, Donald Trump.
In a sign of deep tensions over immigration, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, handed Biden a letter as soon as he landed in the state, saying ‘chaos’ at the border was the ‘result direct” of the president’s decision. non-application of federal laws. Biden then pulled the letter out of his jacket pocket during his tour, telling reporters, “I haven’t read it yet.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called Biden’s visit a “photo opportunity,” saying on Twitter that the Republican majority would hold the administration “responsible for creating the most dangerous border crisis in American history.” .
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego welcomed Biden’s visit, but said a current lull in arrivals prevented the president from seeing just how large the group of newcomers was.
“He couldn’t see the real difficulties,” said Samaniego, who was part of the local delegation that hosted Biden. “It was good that he was here. It’s a first step. But we still have to do more and have more time with him.
Elsewhere in El Paso where Biden did not go, hundreds of migrants gathered Sunday outside the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, where they sleep outside and receive three meals a day from religious groups and other humanitarian organizations. .
Among the migrants were several pregnant women, including Karla Sainz, 26, eight months later. She was traveling in a small group that included her 2-year-old son, Joshua. Sainz left his three other children at home in Venezuela with his mother.
“I would ask President Biden to help me out with permission or something so we can work and keep going,” she said.
Juan Tovar, 32, one of many in his group, suggested he also had political reasons for leaving his home country.
“Socialism is the worst,” he said. “In Venezuela they kill us, they torture us, you can’t say anything bad about the government. We are worse off than in Cuba.
Noengris Garcia, also eight months pregnant, was traveling with her husband, teenage son and small family dog from the small state of Portuguesa, Venezuela, where she operated a food stall.
“We don’t want to receive money or a house,” Garcia, 39, said. “We just want to work.”
Asked what he’s learned from seeing the border firsthand and speaking with the agents who work there, Biden said, “They need a lot of resources. We will get it to them.
El Paso is currently the largest corridor of illegal crossings, largely because of Nicaraguans fleeing repression, crime and poverty in their country. They are among migrants from four countries who are now subject to rapid deportation under new rules enacted by the Biden administration. last week, which drew heavy criticism from immigration advocates.
Biden’s recent policy announcements on border security and his visit to the border were intended in part to mitigate the impact of upcoming immigration investigations promised by House Republicans. But any lasting solution will require action from the sharply divided Congress, where multiple efforts to pass sweeping changes have failed in recent years.
From Texas, Biden headed south to Mexico City, where he and the leaders of Mexico and Canada will meet Monday and Tuesday for a summit of North American leaders. Immigration is one of the items on the agenda.
The number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border increased dramatically during Biden’s first two years in office. There were more than 2.38 million shutdowns in the year ending September 30, the first time the number topped 2 million. The administration has struggled to crack down on the crossings, reluctant to take steps that would resemble those of the Trump administration.
The policy changes announced last week are Biden’s biggest move yet to contain illegal border crossings and will repel tens of thousands of migrants arriving at the border. At the same time, 30,000 migrants a month from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela will be able to come to the United States legally as long as they travel by plane, obtain a sponsor and pass security checks. antecedents.
The United States will also refuse migrants who do not first seek asylum in a country they passed through en route to the United States. Migrants are asked to fill out a form on a phone app so they can get to a port of entry at a pre-scheduled date and time.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters aboard Air Force One that the administration was trying to “encourage a safe and orderly manner and weed out contraband organizations,” saying policies n were “not a ban at all”, but an attempt to protect migrants from the trauma that smuggling can create.
The changes have been welcomed by some, especially leaders of towns where migrants have flocked. But Biden has been excoriated by immigrant advocacy groups, who have accused him of taking actions modeled on 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 US-Mexico border.
The only visit the White House could indicate was Biden’s conduct at the border while campaigning for president in 2008. He sent Vice President Kamala Harris to El Paso in 2021.but she was criticized for largely skirting the action, as El Paso was not the crossing center that it is now.
Trump, who has made tougher immigration a signature issue, has visited the border several times.
Associated Press writers Andres Leighton in El Paso, Texas; Anita Snow in Phoenix; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.