President Joe Biden visited the U.S.-Mexico border on Sunday for the first time since taking office, tackling one of the most politically charged issues in the country as he prepares for a re-election bid.
His visit was not expected to result in new policies, but rather to demonstrate that he is taking the issue seriously and to strengthen relations with Border Patrol agents, some of whom have bristled at the rollback of hardline enforcement policies by the White House.
Biden announced on Thursday his administration’s plan to block Cuban, Haitian and Nicaraguan migrants at the border, expanding the nationalities of those who can be expelled back to Mexico.
The long-term goal of Congress reforming America’s creaky immigration system is unlikely to succeed given Republicans’ newly assumed control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Right-wing lawmakers have repeatedly torpedoed U.S. immigration reform proposals over the past two decades.
Biden sent Congress an immigration reform plan on his first day in office two years ago, but it floundered due to opposition from Republicans, who also blocked his request for $3.5 billion to beef up border enforcement.
Republicans are pushing their own plans for the border following a midterm election in they seized a narrow majority in the House of Representatives.
Texas’ Republican Governor, Greg Abbott, met Biden in El Paso and handed him a letter outlining five steps to address the border crisis – including detaining the millions of people in the United States illegally.
Republican U.S. Representative Jim Jordan told Fox News on Sunday that his party could help the Democrats – but only if Biden adopted the enforcement policies of former President Donald Trump. Those policies included separating children from their migrant parents as part of a “zero-tolerance” approach to deter illegal immigration.
“They’ve allowed now a situation where frankly, we no longer have a border,” Jordan said.
Biden, joined by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, is expected to meet in El Paso with congressional lawmakers, local officials and community leaders.
Mayorkas on Sunday said two of the key elements leading to increased numbers of migrants making their way to the United States – international crises and legislative stasis – were outside the president’s control.
“We’re just dealing with a broken system,” Mayorkas told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Texas.
The White House said Biden would assess border enforcement operations in El Paso, where the Democratic mayor declared a state of emergency last month, citing hundreds of migrants’ sleeping on the streets in cold temperatures and thousands being apprehended every day.
U.S. border officials apprehended a record 2.2 million migrants at the border with Mexico in the 2022 fiscal year that ended in September, though that number includes individuals who tried to cross multiple times.
At the same time as he expanded his authority to expel migrants, Biden on Thursday opened legal, limited pathways into the country for Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians – allowing up to 30,000 people from those three countries plus Venezuela to enter the country by air each month.
While winning praise from some U.S. industry groups desperate to solve pressing labor shortages, Biden’s moves have drawn criticism from human rights activists and some Democrats who say the new restrictions are a retreat from the president’s 2020 campaign promise to restore historical rights to asylum-seekers.
Mayorkas rejected the idea that Biden was reviving Trump-era clampdowns.
“It is not a ban at all,” he said. “It is markedly different than what the Trump administration proposed.”
On the ground in El Paso, migrants greeted the new policy with trepidation.
David Guillen, 43, asked Biden to forgive him and fellow Venezuelan migrants who entered the country illegally, many of whom are now sleeping outside a church in El Paso, fearful of being arrested and deported if they attempt to travel to another city.
“We made a mistake … but not a bad mistake. It’s just that we want a better life,” he said.
After the El Paso visit, Biden is scheduled to travel south of the border to meet with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in talks that will also touch on immigration.
Americans give Biden failing grades on immigration policy, polls show.
An average of polls gathered by Real Clear Politics shows 37% of the public disapprove of Biden’s handling of immigration, a number lower than his overall approval rating.
“Fundamentally we have to fix the system,” Mayorkas told reporters.