President Biden visits El Paso border to assess migrant crisis
EL PASO, Texas — President Joe Biden traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border on Sunday for the first time since taking office and visited El Paso, Texas, where he was greeted with requests for help addressing a growing humanitarian crisis in which Migrants sleep streets.
Biden’s trip comes amid criticism from Republicans and some Democratic lawmakers that he has not done enough to deal with a wave of migrants at the southern border. From Texas, he will head to Mexico City to meet with North American leaders on immigration and other issues.
The number of migrants crossing the border — some legitimately seeking asylum, others illegally — has increased dramatically in Biden’s first two years in office. El Paso is currently the largest corridor for illegal crossings, due in part to Nicaraguans fleeing oppression, crime and poverty in their country. Last month, El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of emergency in response to the crisis.
As he exited Air Force One on Sunday, Biden was greeted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, one of the government’s most outspoken critics of border policies. Abbott gave Biden a letter in which he dismissed his visit as a series of carefully staged photo ops and outlined five steps the government could take to secure the border, including immediately resuming construction of the Texas border wall.
Meanwhile, at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown’s historic Segundo Barrio, there was a mixture of insecurity, hope and fear among the hundreds of migrants, many from Venezuela, camped outside.
Men, women, and small children – but mostly men – inside the Church are in limbo, unable to proceed further into the interior of the United States, and afraid that if they leave Church territory they will be apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol .
The migrants said they wanted Biden to give them the option to stay for fear of deportation and reprisals if they were sent back to Venezuela. If they cannot stay in the US, some said they would like to continue north to Canada.
“We only want good news,” said 28-year-old Maria Rodriguez, who left Venezuela with family members for the United States four months ago. “We’re stuck here (in El Paso) now. We don’t know what to do, where we’re going. We cannot move from here (the church) because if immigration gets us, they will deport us.”
“Dude, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said El Paso’s Sergio Contreras as he stopped to view the scene of migrants lining the sidewalks outside Sacred Heart.
The camp is now confined to the block where the church is located, but at one point stretches across three surrounding blocks, Contreras said.
El Paso was on the front lines of the unprecedented humanitarian crisis, said Isabel Salcido, an El Paso city council member who had previously urged the president to visit the border.
“We continue to put band-aids on gunshot wounds,” said Salcido, who said she wanted to stress to Biden the importance of assisting border communities dealing with the fallout from Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Biden was scheduled to be in El Paso for three hours before continuing to Mexico City.
- Visit to the International Bridge: Biden’s first stop in El Paso was at the Bridge of the Americas Port of Entry, a busy port that connects the city to Juarez, Mexico. The port has received more than $600 million in federal infrastructure funding for a renovation. With the rusting steel border fence just a short distance behind him, Biden watched a demonstration of security including dogs sniffing for contraband and Border Patrol agents demonstrating searching hidden compartments.
- Migrant Center: Biden was also scheduled to visit a migrant service center and meet with local officials and faith and community leaders who have been partners in dealing with the historic number of migrants fleeing political oppression and economic collapse in their home countries. In addition, he planned to ask Congress to fully fund his border security proposal and pass legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. Biden has requested $3.5 billion to address the humanitarian crisis at the border, but Congress provided only $1.6 billion in the funding bill approved late last month.
- Walking Tour of El Paso: Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who was traveling aboard Air Force One with Biden, said she was grateful that Biden accepted her invitation. “It’s important to me that he hears from those on the ground who work directly with the migrants,” she said, “because border communities like ours have a significant responsibility that comes with this historic refugee crisis in the western hemisphere.”
- New migrant policy: Biden has unveiled new policy moves to deal with the flood of asylum seekers at the border. The policy calls for the deportation of up to 30,000 migrants a month from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba, who make up the majority of those crossing the border. Normally these individuals would be sent back to their home countries, but the US has no diplomatic ties with Venezuela and close ties with Nicaragua and Cuba. Mexico has agreed to accept migrants from each of the four countries.
- Why he is going to Mexico: After the El Paso trip, Biden travels to Mexico City, where the most significant migration to the United States since World War II will be the focus of two-day talks with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In addition to immigration, climate change, competitiveness and security are also on the agenda. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will attend some of the talks.
During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, more than 2.38 million stops were reported by migrants, the first time the number surpassed 2 million. US Customs and Border Protection recorded an average of 1,800 encounters with migrants per day in El Paso in December. The agency reported more than 50,000 encounters with migrants in October, November and December.
Dozens of people – including many who crossed the border illegally after being unable to apply for asylum at the border – continue to sleep on the streets of downtown El Paso. The city has provided warm-up buses for migrants, and local religious and charitable organizations are providing meals.
State and local officials fear an even greater influx of asylum seekers if the US Supreme Court ends a Trump-era health care law that allows US authorities to quickly deport migrants. Biden has tried to end the controversial Title 42 program but Republicans have sued to keep the restrictions in place.
Just days before the restrictions expired, the Supreme Court ruled late last month that the administration cannot stop the program’s expulsion of migrants. The judges said they will hear arguments about the program in the coming year.
Biden’s new policy of deporting illegal migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba will remain in place even if the Supreme Court overturns Title 42. At the same time, the US said it would accept 30,000 migrants a month from those four nations for two years if they had legitimate sponsors, passed screening and background checks, and didn’t attempt to cross the southwestern border.
Still, the new policy angered asylum and immigration advocates, who had a rocky relationship with the president.
What you say
- “The federal government has been our partner in this humanitarian crisis and has provided much-needed financial support as we assist with this critical federal issue. While President Biden is fully aware of the challenges we face, it always helps to see things through your own eyes.” —Oscar Lesser, Mayor of El Paso
- “While I’m glad President Biden is finally coming to the border, his visit cannot be a check-the-box photo op like his border czar’s stunt more than a year and a half ago, which was frivolous and unacceptable. He needs to take the time to learn from some of the experts I rely on most, including local officials and law enforcement, landowners, nonprofit organizations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and agents, and people who make their livings in Frontier communities on the front lines deserve lines of its crisis.” — Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas
- “If President Biden is serious about addressing the crisis his administration is creating, he needs to visit McAllen, Eagle Pass, Del Rio and Laredo and speak to the crime-ridden communities, the ranchers who find bodies on their lands, and the border police who are overwhelmed and the families who have lost loved ones to cross-border drug trafficking. Instead, he spent two years educating the American public about how bad things really are.” — Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas
- “This visit is about two years late and about $20 billion short of what needs to be done. All he’s going to do down there is rearrange the chairs on the Titanic’s deck. He’s not going to get any of the solutions he would make to making the border safer and stopping illegal immigration.” – Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, speaking on Fox News Sunday Morning Futures
- “We are deeply disappointed by Biden’s shameful extension of Trump’s Title 42 policy, which further cements his predecessor’s anti-immigrant legacy. … All people have the right to seek asylum and life-saving legal protection, regardless of race, nationality, or current connections within the United States. Biden must deliver on his promise to build a more welcoming and inclusive immigration system.” — Layla Razavi, interim executive director of Freedom for Immigrants advocacy group
Why it matters
Biden is under pressure to explain his plans for dealing with a spate of migrants at the US-Mexico border. Border security is a top priority for Republicans, who seized control of the House in November’s midterm elections and criticized the Democrat for not visiting the border. Republicans have also vowed to investigate the government’s handling of the issue.
Biden said that while “extreme Republicans” would use immigration as a campaign issue, “they now have a choice. They can continue to use immigration to try and gain political points, or they can help solve the problem… and band together to fix the broken system.”
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Contributors: Joey Garrison of USA Today and The Associated Press