President Joe Biden on Sunday landed in Texas to visit the US-Mexico border for the first time in his nearly two years as commander-in-chief, even as lawmakers and immigrant rights advocates have widely condemned his administration’s latest hardline response to the deepening humanitarian emergency there.
Biden – who is due in Mexico City this week for an international summit – made a brief pit stop in El Paso, a recent ground zero for the consequences of a US immigration system that he has readily acknowledged is deeply broken.
The reliably blue border city in blood red Texas has been struggling for months to triage thousands of stranded migrants and asylum seekers, many of whom have had little choice but to sleep on the streets in cold, rain, and squalor.
Biden greeted local politicians at the airport, including Texas’s hardline Republican governor Greg Abbott, who has courted controversy with his stringent border policies, including bussing migrants to Democratic cities in the north-east. Abbott handed Biden a letter that read in part: “Your visit to our southern border with Mexico today is $20bn too little and two years too late.”
Biden then later traveled to the Bridge of the Americas border crossing, where northbound cars lined up to cross into El Paso from Juárez, Mexico. Wearing a suit and his trademark sunglasses, Biden chatted to local law enforcement officers and watched demonstrations of bordering policing, including by a canine unit searching a car for contrabrand food items as well as other techniques for finding drugs or helping migrants in medical distress.
Biden, accompanied by several members of border patrol, then also visited a migrant welcome center and a stretch of the border wall that runs between El Paso and Juárez. The meetings took place with no press present aside from those watching at a distance. Biden answered a brief shouted question by promising more help for the border situation. “They need a lot of resources. We’re going to get it for them,” he said.
Biden’s first trip to the US-Mexico border since ascending to the nation’s highest office follows a record-breaking fiscal year of roughly 2.4 million migrant encounters there, amid a new normal of mass forced displacement because of regional instability, growing wealth disparities, climate disaster, and targeted persecution in various countries throughout the hemisphere.
It also comes mere days after the administration announced new changes to federal migration-related policies, which engendered immediate and intense backlash from pro-immigrant organizations and progressive members of Biden’s own party.
“For once, just once, I’d 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,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of El Paso’s Hope Border Institute.
Instead, Corbett excoriated the administration’s new approach as an entrenchment of “dangerous, ineffective, and inhumane policy” and equated the strategy to “a broken promise”.
These latest policy developments, announced Thursday, include an even more severe crackdown at the US-Mexico border through the increased use of expedited removal, where migrants are rapidly deported without ever seeing a judge.
They also expand a highly criticized Trump-era practice that allows border authorities to quickly expel migrants and would-be asylum seekers back to Mexico or elsewhere, without even the chance to ask for asylum.
This controversial measure – which began amid the pandemic as an invocation of public health law but has warped into a cynical immigration tool – will now be deployed to target Nicaraguans, Haitians and Cubans for expulsion to Mexico, after a similar move against Venezuelans in October was followed by a significant drop in the number of people from that country arriving at the US-Mexico border.
The Biden administration coupled these heightened deterrence mechanisms, in part, with an announcement of more legal pathways for at least temporary admittance to the US for a limited number of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans who can afford to bankroll their own commercial travel, own an unexpired passport, and have someone stateside who is willing to sponsor their application, alongside other requirements.
Homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the administration’s recent moves to reporters traveling with Biden. “What we’re trying to do is broadly incentivize, safe and orderly way, and cut out the smuggling organizations. 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 said.
But critics have pointed out that few of the most vulnerable forcibly displaced people within the hemisphere can actually furnish the wealth, resources and connections to meet such narrow criteria.
Detractors also expressed alarm and disdain over news that the Biden administration would be advancing a new rule to further restrict asylum eligibility, drawing comparisons between the Democratic president and his right-wing predecessor.
“This week’s policy announcements are completely out of touch with the actual circumstances of people seeking asylum, many of whom arrive at our border fleeing imminent threats to their lives,” said Melissa Crow, director of litigation at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.
“It has been deeply disturbing to hear the president affirm that seeking asylum is legal, pledge to create a safe and humane process at the border, and then turn around and announce policies that further undermine access to the US asylum process.”
The implications of Biden’s border strategies to date have already been deeply felt in El Paso, where vulnerable Venezuelans and other nationalities scared of being expelled back to Mexico have started evading U.S. authorities and been consequently denied access to some of the city’s shelters.
Huge crowds of migrants have been languishing on the streets in downtown El Paso and outside of the city’s Sacred Heart Church for weeks. Desperate mothers have had to worry about their babies potentially freezing to death when temperatures drop.
Some of these people have felt stranded, afraid that if they try to leave the city they’ll run into immigration enforcement at a checkpoint and end up detained or expelled. Others never even had the chance to take that risk, after immigration officials rounded up and detained scores of them in the last few days.
In chaotic footage obtained by NBC News, local police and border agents inundated the streets around Sacred Heart Church’s shelter Tuesday night, sirens blazing, as they apprehended what a witness estimated to be between 100 and 150 people.
Experts warned the operation – so close to a place of worship – may have in fact violated the Department of Homeland Security’s own guidance, NBC News reported.
A similar action in the city’s downtown cleared out migrants who had been staying near a local bus terminal on Wednesday night, according to media organization El Paso Matters.
“The cynic in me contemplates the possibility that this was a cleanup action intended to showcase El Paso in a particular light and the president’s enforcement actions in a particular light,” Lisa Graybill, vice president of law and policy at the National Immigration Law Center, told NBC News.
Yet for Isabel Salcido, a city representative for El Paso, Biden’s trip was more about him finally bearing witness.
“This crisis is not going away,” Salcido said. “We desperately need the help and leadership of Congress and the White House.”