Texas Republicans heckle Biden over border remarks during State of the Union

Texas Republicans have long pressed President Joe Biden to do more to address border security and jeered at his remarks during his annual speech to Congress.


(Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., listen.

WASHINGTON — Texas Republicans heckled President Joe Biden over his treatment of the border during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, expressing dissatisfaction over the president's handling of one of their top priorities.

During his annual address to both chambers of Congress, Biden took nearly an hour to bring up either the border or immigration, despite pleas from members of both parties for greater attention to the issues and near-relentless attacks from Republicans that he was not doing enough. When he did touch on the topics, his comments drew guffaws and jeers from the Republicans in the House, including impassioned outbursts of "secure the border!"

"He spent more time talking about hotel and baggage fees than he actually did about the border crisis happening," said U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Edinburg, in a brief interview after the speech.

Both Republicans and Democrats who represent Texas' border communities have long urged the president to pay more attention to the situation at the southern border, though they have had little cross-aisle agreement on how to address the issue. Border security and record numbers of migrant apprehensions have fueled Republican attacks of the Biden administration for months, with Republicans urging stiffer penalties for illegal crossings and more resources for Border Patrol.

National Democrats largely avoided the border and immigration issue for the first two years of the Biden presidency, focusing instead on legislation to tackle climate change and the pandemic's economic fallout. Immigration and the border were also considered topics that were too sensitive and too high of a risk of legislative failure for Democrats to pursue just before what they had widely expected to be a brutal midterm election.

With the midterm over, Democrats holding onto more territory than expected, and a bipartisan group of senators signaling support for a border security and immigration package this year, there was greater hope for Biden to discuss the issue during this year's address.

During his speech, Biden urged Congress to codify protections for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and to give more funding for Border Patrol. He also stressed the need to fund technology to screen for fentanyl being smuggled into the country.

"If you won't pass my comprehensive immigration reform, at least pass my plan to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border," Biden said. "And a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, those on temporary status, farm workers and essential workers."

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said she hasn't given up on some kind of immigration and border package in the new Congress, despite her party losing control of the House. In a brief interview after the speech, she praised Biden's address and said she "loved that he put it right back at Congress' feet" to pass comprehensive immigration reform. She acknowledged that as a border resident and representative, "of course" she would have preferred more discussion of the topic, but she said the president had to address a multitude of other issues during his hour-and-20-minute speech. Escobar has previously pressed the Biden administration to spend more time addressing the border and hosted the president in her district last month. It was his first visit to the U.S.-Mexico border since he took office.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, a fellow border member, also said he wished the president spent more time discussing the border and acknowledged that "it's going to be difficult" to get a package across.

"He did touch a little bit on migration," Cuellar said. "But again, he did focus on what I thought was right, which is the economy."

Republicans had numerous outbursts during the address, including calling the president a "liar" after he said some Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare in order to rein in the federal deficit. The behavior drew condemnation from Democrats, who dismissed it as childish. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said the behavior has only gotten worse over time.

"It's something that we're used to seeing since Jan. 6 on the other side," said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, referring to the attack on the nation's Capitol in 2021.

Biden also touched on several other issues that are front-of-mind in Texas, including abortion access. First lady Jill Biden invited an Austin woman who nearly died after being denied a medical intervention because of Texas' abortion laws as one of her guests. Amanda Zurawski and her husband, Josh, joined the first lady in her viewing box in order to highlight the administration's desire to address abortion access.

Last year, Zurawski's water broke when she was only 18 weeks pregnant. Although there was no way her fetus would ultimately survive, there was still cardiac activity, so her doctor refused to induce labor, citing the state's abortion laws. Instead, they sent her home. Only after Zurawski developed sepsis, a life-threatening infection, were doctors willing to terminate her pregnancy.

Texas' near-total abortion ban allows the procedure only to save the life of the pregnant patient. But since the law went into effect this summer, doctors have reported delaying care due to confusion over the exceptions and fear of prosecution.

"The vice president and I are doing everything we can to protect access to reproductive health care and safeguard patient privacy. But already, more than a dozen states are enforcing extreme abortion bans," Biden said.

The Zurawskis helped campaign for Beto O'Rourke in his challenge against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott last year, appearing in one of O'Rourke's last ads. During his campaign, Abbott indicated interest in revisiting the abortion law to ensure doctors don't delay necessary medical care needed to prevent life-threatening complications.

The White House has been critical of Texas' abortion ban, which went into effect shortly after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to the procedure last summer. President Joe Biden said it would be his top legislative priority if Democrats retained control of Congress in the midterm elections. Republicans ultimately flipped the House, but that hasn't stopped a vocal group of Democrats from continuing to introduce legislation to restore abortion access.

U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, was a leading advocate for legislation protecting abortion access last summer, but the legislation failed to pass the then-evenly split Senate. In the House last week, she reintroduced the bill, which would codify the right to travel to states where abortion is legal.

"Wonderful to welcome Amanda Zurawski to Washington as Dr. Jill Biden's guest, but horrible that she needs to be here," Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said in a statement. "Her life was endangered by Texas Republican extremists with a radical law that denies the right to abortion—and denies the ability of physicians to safeguard women's health. Now these same extremists are demanding a rigid national ban on abortion and restrictions on contraception.”

During his speech, Biden vowed to veto any federal legislation that would implement a ban on abortions like the one currently in Texas.

Oksana Markarova, ambassador of Ukraine, was also seated with the first lady. Biden pushed to continue supporting Ukraine's war effort as some Republicans begin to question whether the U.S. should continue to aid the war-torn country.

"Putin's invasion has been a test for the ages. A test for America. A test for the world. Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy?" Biden said. "Yes, we would."

Supporting Ukraine is a priority that Texas defense hawk Republicans and human rights-oriented Democrats both agree on, though some far-right Republicans have questioned the sustained support for a foreign war and urged more attention to the southern border. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, has made numerous appeals to his colleagues to keep funding Ukraine aid and said it was a "false dichotomy" to suggest Ukraine aid came at the expense of border security.

McCaul, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, plans to host hearings tracking the aid to Ukraine to ease concerns about waste and to expose war crimes in a bid to inform his peers about the realities in the country.

"I'm dealing with the generation that didn't grow up with the Cold War like I did," McCaul said. "All they remember is Iraq and Afghanistan forever wars. And all they know of Ukraine is an impeachment and corruption."

McCaul invited Roya Rahmani, former ambassador from Afghanistan, as his guest to the speech to show "the women of Afghanistan that they have not been forgotten." McCaul has been a consistent critic of the Biden administration's withdrawal from the country, which opened the way for the Taliban to take over and rescind women's rights to education and free movement. McCaul vowed to conduct an investigation into the administration's withdrawal.

Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, brought Brett Cross from Uvalde, who has advocated for stricter gun regulations and police accountability since the school shooting at Robb Elementary. Cross' nephew — 10-year-old Uziyah Garcia, whom he's raised as a son — was among the 19 children killed.

During his speech, Biden lauded last year's bipartisan gun law led by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, as an important step to addressing gun safety. But he urged Congress to go even further by banning assault weapons "once and for all."

"Do something. That was the same plea of parents who lost their children in Uvalde: Do something on gun violence," Biden said.

De La Cruz and U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, both reached across the aisle with their invites. De La Cruz invited state Rep. Terry Canales, a Rio Grande Valley Democrat representing her hometown, in a bid to move past the bitter partisanship of last year's highly competitive South Texas elections. Gooden brought his former Texas House colleague Eric Johnson, a Democrat who is now mayor of Dallas.

Clarification, : This story has been updated to more thoroughly reflect the relationship between Brett Cross and Uziyah Garcia. Cross was Garcia's uncle and legal guardian and describes Uziyah as his son.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/07/biden-state-of-the-union-texas-zurawski/.

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