Immigration

Joe Biden tours El Paso for first border visit of his presidency

He was greeted by Gov. Greg Abbott upon arrival at the El Paso airport. Abbott has been a chief critic of Biden’s immigration policies and has frequently called on him to visit the border over the past year.

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Joe Biden shakes hands with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott upon Biden's arrival in El Paso on Sunday. This is his first visit as president to the U.S.-Mexico border.

EL PASO — President Joe Biden toured El Paso for about four hours on Sunday, visiting the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time since taking office in the White House.

He was greeted by Gov. Greg Abbott upon arrival at the El Paso airport. Abbott has been a chief critic of Biden's immigration policies and has frequently called on him to visit the border over the past year as the number of migrant arrests has broken records.

"The president who caused the chaos at the border needed to be here. It just so happens he's two years and about $20 billion too late," Abbott told reporters at the airport. "He needs to step up and take swift action, including reimbursing the state of Texas toward the money we spent but providing more resources for federal government to do its job. Also this is nothing but for show unless he begins to enforce the immigration laws that already exist."

The two spoke briefly at the airport and parted ways. Abbott's office said he was not invited to attend the rest of the president's tour of El Paso. Asked about his conversation with Biden, Abbott told reporters, "He said he wanted to work with us on it."

Biden's office said the aim of the trip was to "assess border enforcement operations and meet with local elected officials and community leaders who have been important partners in managing the historic number of migrants fleeing political oppression and gang violence."

While in El Paso, Biden visited the Bridge of the Americas port of entry — which connects El Paso to Ciudad Juárez for tourists and commercial trade. The president will also visit the El Paso County Migrant Services Center. Biden will be joined by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas; Democratic U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, Henry Cuellar of Laredo, and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen; El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser; and El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego.

Biden made an unscheduled stop near an 18-foot-tall border fence along the border with Mexico, according to a pool report.

When asked by reporters what he learned during his trip to El Paso, he said, "They need a lot of resources. We're going to get it for them."

President Joe Biden walks along a portion of a border fence in El Paso during his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border on Jan. 8, 2023.
Biden walks along a portion of a border fence in El Paso on Sunday during his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

After his brief visit, he left for Mexico City. Biden is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the North American Leaders' Summit on Monday and Tuesday.

The visit to the border for the president is politically fraught — as Republicans have accused Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris of neglecting border security.

As Biden visited the border city, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel held a press conference in the Rio Grande Valley with community leaders to criticize the president's "disastrous border security plan and its effects on Texas' border communities."

"We're in McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, where so much of this is happening, and President Biden has still never been here," said McDaniel, standing alongside local officials. "So we wanted to make sure that we don't forget this part of the state and allow him to do a photo op in El Paso and pretend that the problem is gone."

Abbott, who has made border security a top priority of his administration and who initiated the building of a state-funded border wall, said on Fox News that the Biden administration did not reach out about the El Paso visit until Saturday night, when a staffer got an email inviting Abbott to greet Biden on the tarmac.

Abbott said he hand-delivered a letter to the president at the tarmac. The letter pinned the influx of migrants on the Biden administration's open-border policies and demanded the president take a stricter approach in securing the border.

Biden said he hasn't read it yet, according to a pool report.

Biden recently announced a set of new policies that would allow 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the country and be able to work legally for up to two years, as long as they apply from their home country and can find someone to support them economically in the U.S.

At the same time, immigration agents would expand the use of the emergency health order known as Title 42 to expel the same number of migrants from those four countries to Mexico if they attempt to enter the U.S. illegally. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Mexico has agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants a month from those countries under Title 42.

If more than that number are apprehended, immigration officials would process additional migrants under standard immigration laws, which could result in deportation and a five-year ban from being able to enter the country legally.

"What we're trying to do is broadly incentivize, safe and orderly way, and cut out the smuggling organizations," Mayorkas said during the flight to El Paso, according to a pool report. "So what what we're trying to have is to incentivize them to come to the ports of entry instead of in between the points of entry."

He also said the Biden administration has sent an additional 100 Border Patrol agents to the El Paso area, and later this week officials will open "a new soft-sided facility that will be able to process up to 1,000 migrants," according to the pool report.

As part of the new policies, the Biden administration also plans to propose an immigration rule that would deny asylum to anyone who immigrated to other countries and did not seek asylum there first. This rule will go through a public-comment phase before it's implemented and can take effect.

Some immigrant rights advocates welcomed the new program allowing 30,000 migrants a month to enter legally. But they also blasted the president for expanding Title 42 and proposing a travel ban on migrants experiencing violence. Some say it's similar to a plan the Trump administration attempted to implement.

The Biden administration attempted to lift Title 42 last year before a federal judge in Louisiana ordered the administration to continue enforcing the emergency health order. In November, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ordered the Biden administration to immediately lift Title 42, then later agreed to give the federal government until Dec. 21 to prepare for the change.

On Dec. 27, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Biden administration must continue implementing Title 42. The high court agreed to hear arguments in February on whether an Arizona-led coalition of 19 states, including Texas, can challenge a lower-court ruling that ordered the Biden administration to lift Title 42.

Dylan Corbett, the executive director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, said he would "like to see this administration make the moral argument to the rest of the country that we need to put in place an effective, humane, accessible, welcoming and compassionate system of protection at the border."

"At the end of the day, the expansion of Title 42 to include Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans is a broken promise," Corbett said. "Rather than putting our country on a sure path to fully restoring asylum at the border, these new actions entrench a dangerous, ineffective and inhumane policy."

Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First, said, "We urge the administration to adjust course, end its expansion of Title 42 and abandon its misguided plan to advance an asylum ban."

El Paso Police Department officers detain a migrant man outside Sacred Heart Church in El Paso on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023.
El Paso Police Department officers detained a migrant man outside Sacred Heart Church in El Paso on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

"While we welcome the creation of new, safe pathways, we strongly condemn the Biden administration's decision to expand use of Title 42 to additional nationalities and its potential resurrection of a new asylum ban that would turn away people seeking refugee protection," she said.

Mayorkas responded to the criticism.

"I've seen the criticism of it as a ban, but it is not a ban at all," Mayorkas said, according to the pool report. "It is markedly different than what the Trump administration proposed."

He added, "I've seen firsthand what trauma is inflicted on migrants who actually use the smuggling organizations, so trauma or tragedy."

Last month, El Paso was the epicenter of a large increase of migrants crossing the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez. Border Patrol officials released some migrants into El Paso's downtown after processing them, and hundreds slept outdoors in nearly freezing temperatures because local shelters had reached their limits. In fiscal year 2022, which ended in September, immigration agents encountered 2.4 million migrants at the southern border — a record-breaking number.

According to Mayorkas, in December there was a daily average of about 2,000 migrants crossing the Rio Grande into the El Paso area, according to the pool report. That has gone down to about 700 a day, Mayorkas said.

Meanwhile in El Paso's Segundo Barrio, a neighborhood south of downtown, hundreds of migrants have slept in the street where Sacred Heart Church has been housing some migrants at night. Not everyone fits in the church's shelter, so many have slept on the sidewalks next to it.

The situation in recent weeks has been tense.

Migrants stand in line to enter the makeshift shelter inside the gym of Sacred Heart Church in El Paso on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023.
Migrants stand in line Friday night to enter the makeshift shelter in the gym of Sacred Heart Church. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

El Paso police recently arrested 27-year-old Steven Mathew Driscoll on suspicion of harassing and pointing a gun at some of the migrants on New Year's Eve. Also, in the past week, El Paso police and Border Patrol agents have been arresting migrants near the church. Police say they are arresting migrants who are violating city ordinances, and Border Patrol agents say they have been arresting migrants who crossed the border without being processed.

Some migrants said they have enough money to get on a bus out of town to reunite with family in other parts of the country but are afraid to step away from the church's premises because they are afraid they are going to be arrested by police or immigration agents.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Pastor Rafael Garcia was standing on the corner of a sidewalk looking concerned as El Paso police arrested a migrant. An officer on the scene told Garcia police were arresting the migrant on suspicion of violating a city ordinance.

Garcia said he hoped Biden recognizes that "these people are fleeing violence and are in a desperate situation."

"So what alternative do they have?" he said.

Jorge Luis Lugo, a 26-year-old Venezuelan migrant, washed his face in a portable sink and said he wished Biden would visit the church to see the conditions migrants are living in. He said that he wished Biden's latest immigration plan would have included migrants who have already arrived.

"After sacrificing a lot, how does he expect us to just go back?" he said. "We just want a chance to be able to work and help our families back home."

Carolina Rodriguez, 36, said she and her husband have been sleeping on a sidewalk next to the church since Christmas Day. They left their 12- and 9-year-old daughters back home with her mother because they only want to be in the U.S. to work. She said a cousin in Florida is trying to gather up enough money to buy them plane or bus tickets out of El Paso. In the meantime, she said she would stay in El Paso to work but so far has been denied a job as a barber.

"Not all of us are bad," she said, sitting an altar for the Virgin of Guadalupe while her husband lay down near her. "There's a lot of us who have skills, professions and simply just want to work to get ahead in life."

In Venezuela, she was a kindergarten teacher, but after the country's economy collapsed, it wasn't enough money to sustain her family. She worked various jobs such as cutting hair or making cakes, but then she began getting death threats over the phone. She said she has family members who worked for the local government, and the anonymous threats came from people saying they would kidnap her or her children unless she gave them money in return for her safety.

She said she reported it to police, but life in Venezuela was unbearable.

"I'm a big believer in God, so if He wants me here on the streets, so be it," she said. "Soon my family will be able to get me money to get out here."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/08/joe-biden-border-visit-el-paso/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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