Biden makes tightly controlled visit to the southern border, his first as president

Jan 8, 2023, 7:30 PM | Updated: 8:55 pm
President Joe Biden is heading to the US-Mexico border on Sunday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters via CNN)...
President Joe Biden is heading to the US-Mexico border on Sunday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters via CNN)
(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters via CNN)
Originally Published: 08 JAN 23 08:34 ET
Updated: 08 JAN 23 20:46 ET

    (CNN) — President Joe Biden visited the US-Mexico border on Sunday for the first time as president, but he did not appear to see or meet with migrants, including during a trip to a migrant respite center.

Related: Church reacts to Biden signing Respect for Marriage Act into law

Biden spent several hours in El Paso in his first visit to the southern border as president, following growing outcry and criticism that he had not yet seen the crisis created by the record number of migrants trekking to the border first hand. But that brief visit appeared largely focused on enforcement issues and speaking with border enforcement personnel. Reporters on the ground did not see any migrants at the respite center during the president’s visit there, nor along the motorcade routes throughout the afternoon.

Asked to explain the thinking behind having Biden visit this specific center and ultimately not meeting or interacting with any migrants there, a senior administration official told CNN, “There just weren’t any at the center when he arrived. Completely coincidental. They haven’t had any today.”

Biden’s visit was scheduled at a time when border crossings had already dropped drastically in El Paso. Still, CNN’s Rosa Flores reported on Sunday that hundreds of migrants, including children, were living on the street after crossing into the United States in El Paso. And nearly 1,000 additional migrants were in federal custody in detention facilities in El Paso on Sunday, according to the City of El Paso’s migrant dashboard.

The trip came following relentless calls from Republicans who believe the trip is overdue. In addition to Republicans, some border-district Democrats in Congress and even Democratic mayors have criticized Biden for failing to address record levels of border crossings.

Upon arriving, the president’s motorcade drove along a highway that parallels the Rio Grande and the border. An iron-slatted fence with barbed wire at the top was to the left as the motorcade went down the highway. At a quick stop, Biden stood for several minutes along the iron fence separating the US and Mexico as he spoke with officers in green uniforms. The group then walked along the gravel road that abuts the fence. Biden responded to a few questions from reporters, saying that the government would provide every resource needed at the border.

He then visited a migrant processing center, where he did not appear to meet with any migrants, but did discuss the work underway there with several different workers from that facility.

Biden shook each person’s hand and chatted quietly but reporters were unable to hear the exchange. Biden then observed kits containing socks, toothpaste and soap that are given to migrants. He asked if he could wave a wand to help the organizations, what they would look for and the answer appeared to be funding, but reporters covering the visit had trouble hearing him.

A political liability

With his visit to El Paso, Texas, on Sunday, Biden seized on an issue that’s been a political liability for his administration after calling on Congress to overhaul the US immigration system to meet current needs.

Related: Illegal border crossings to US from Mexico hit annual high

But the patchwork of policies put in place by the administration to manage the border so far has often put Biden at odds with his own allies who argue that the administration’s approach is too enforcement heavy.

“It’s enraging and sad to see a Democratic administration make it harder for vulnerable people to seek asylum all because they’re scared of angry MAGA voters on this issue,” a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told CNN, responding to the latest policy announcements.

Biden meets Texan leaders at the border

The president’s flight was met by Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott, a persistent critic of Biden and his administration for the federal response to migration on the US southern border. The Republican governor confirmed to reporters that he gave Biden a letter outlining what he described as “chaos” on the border.

The letter, which has been published online by the governor’s office, reiterates Abbott’s previous criticisms, urges Biden to visit other border communities and includes five steps the Texas governor believes the Biden administration should take. CNN has reached out to the White House for comment on the letter. Biden told reporters he had not yet read the letter.

Escobar, who represents El Paso, insisted that Biden’s visit to the city would not serve solely as a photo opportunity for the president.

“We’ve worked with the White House to make sure that all the folks who are actually doing the work on the ground day-to-day are the ones that the president will meet with,” she said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “He needs to hear about how over time, the challenges that we have faced as a country on immigration, on border issues, they have grown exponentially.”

She blamed the Trump-era public health rule known as Title 42 for the rise in border crossings. The restriction allows federal authorities to expel migrants quickly, citing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Escobar predicted, based on her conversations with Department of Homeland Security officials, that the administration would eventually move toward the move punitive Title 8, which allows US authorities to process and remove migrants who do not have a legal basis to be in the country.

“All of these executive branch efforts really are just temporary Band-Aids. Whether it’s Title 8, whether it’s Title 42, we need to make sure Congress acts,” she said. “The administration, in the absence of any legislation from the Congress, has very few tools available.”

An urgent challenge

Mass movement across the Western Hemisphere has posed an urgent challenge for Biden, who in his first few months in office faced a surge of unaccompanied migrant children at the border and later, the abrupt arrival of thousands of Haitian migrants.

Since 2021, there have been more than 2.4 million arrests along the US-Mexico border, according to US Customs and Border Protection data. That includes people who have attempted to cross more than once. Many have also been turned away under Title 42.

The arrival of thousands of migrants has strained border communities, including El Paso. The city has prided itself on being a welcoming place for migrants but has been overwhelmed in recent months with the sudden arrival of thousands of migrants, straining local resources and prompting pleas for federal assistance.

Anxiety about the scheduled end of Title 42 prompted thousands of migrants in recent weeks to turn themselves in to border authorities or to cross into the United States illegally in a very short period.

The policy was scheduled to lift last month, but a Supreme Court ruling kept the rule in place while legal challenges play out in court.

Federal data shared with CNN indicates that migrant encounters in El Paso have dropped drastically since December, when thousands crossed on a daily basis.

There have been less than 700 daily encounters on average over the last few days, compared to nearly 2,500 at its peak in December, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

DHS said it deployed 100 additional personnel to the El Paso region in December, and this week, the department will open another temporary facility to process migrants. Shelters in Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, have also seen a decrease in migrants, DHS said.

Biden has said he wanted to wait until he knew an outcome in the Title 42 legal machinations before traveling to the border and accused Republicans calling for him to travel there of playing political games.

“They haven’t been serious about this at all,” he said.

Center of the debate

El Paso has been at the center of the immigration debate dating back to the Trump administration, which piloted the controversial family separation policy in the region.

While Biden has condemned Trump-era immigration policies, his own administration has wrestled with striking a balance between enforcement and holding up its humanitarian promises.

In El Paso, Biden was faced with the history of his predecessor and the challenges he faces as the administration tries to stem the flow of mass migration in the hemisphere.

In recent months, the El Paso sector has surpassed the Rio Grande Valley sector in migrant arrests. RGV has historically been one of the busiest sectors for border crossings. The El Paso sector patrols 268 miles of international border.

Last November, border authorities encountered more than 53,000 migrants in the El Paso sector, according to the latest available data from US Customs and Border Protection.

Last year, El Paso — whose mayor, Leeser, is a Democrat — began sending migrant buses to New York City, following in the footsteps of Republican governors, to try to get people to their destination and decongest the city. That effort has since stopped.

Biden tries a new policy

Ahead of Biden’s border visit, the administration also announced plans to expand the policy and include Haitians, Nicaraguans and Cubans while it remains in place. Title 42 has so far largely applied to migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela.

The announcements Biden made Thursday reflect the administration’s effort to prepare for the end of Title 42, along with putting in place programs to manage the surge of migrants that have coincided with the anticipated end of the rule.

The administration will now accept up to 30,000 migrants per month from Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela under a humanitarian parole program geared toward those nationalities. Those who do not come to the US under that program may be expelled to Mexico under Title 42.

The announcement drew criticism from immigrant advocates and Democrats who argued the policies will put migrants who are seeking asylum in harm’s way.

“The expansion of Title 42 to include Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans is a broken promise,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute, in a statement. Hope Border Institute has been assisting migrants who have arrived in El Paso.

“Border communities will continue to work hard to pick up the broken pieces of our nation’s immigration system and show that our future lies not with expulsion and deportation, but with humanity and hope,” he added.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus grilled top Biden officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, over the newly announced border policies in a call Thursday, according to two sources in attendance.

Members felt blindsided by the new policies and frustrated with the lack of engagement prior to their rollout, the sources said.

“It was really heated,” one source said, adding that members were “livid” that the administration didn’t consult with them ahead of time. The call included officials with the Department of Homeland Security and the White House.

One of the sources of tension during the call was a new asylum regulation that could bar migrants who are seeking asylum in the United States from doing so if they passed through another country on their way to the US-Mexico border. The restrictions are reminiscent of limits rolled out during the Trump administration, though officials have rejected the comparison.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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Biden makes tightly controlled visit to the southern border, his first as president