A migrant prepares to spend the night on a sidewalk outside the Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. AP
Biden watched as border officers in El Paso demonstrated how they search vehicles for drugs, money and other contraband. In a sign of the deep political tensions over the immigration, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott handed Biden a letter upon his arrival that said the "chaos'' at the border was the "direct result'' of the president's failure to enforce federal laws.
Biden planned to spend a few hours in the city, currently the biggest corridor for illegal crossings, in large part to Nicaraguans fleeing repression, crime and poverty in their country. They are among migrants from four countries who are now subject to quick expulsion under new rules enacted by the Biden administration in the past week that drew strong criticism from immigration advocates.
The president met with border officials to discuss migration as well as the increased trafficking of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, which are driving skyrocketing numbers of overdoses in the U.S.
Biden was scheduled to visit the El Paso County Migrant Services Center and meet with nonprofits and religious groups that support migrants arriving to the U.S. It was not clear whether Biden would talk to any migrants.
Biden's announcement on border security and his visit to the border are aimed in part at quelling the political noise and blunting the impact of upcoming investigations into immigration promised by House Republicans. But any enduring solution will require action by the sharply divided Congress, where multiple efforts to enact sweeping changes have failed in recent years.
From El Paso, Biden was to continue south to Mexico City, where he and the leaders of Mexico and Canada will gather on Monday and Tuesday for a North American leaders summit. Immigration is among the items on the agenda. The challenge facing the U.S. on its southern border requires cooperation among multiple countries, a sign that diplomacy will matter as much as internal U.S. policies.
In El Paso, where migrants congregate at bus stops and in parks before traveling on, border patrol agents have stepped up security before Biden's visit.
"I think they're trying to send a message that they're going to more consistently check people's documented status, and if you have not been processed they are going to pick you up,'' said Ruben Garcia of the Annunciation House aid group in El Paso.
Migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing violence and persecution have increasingly found that protections in the United States are available primarily to those with money or the savvy to find someone to vouch for them financially.
Jose Natera, a Venezuelan migrant in El Paso who hopes to seek asylum in Canada, said he has no prospects for finding a U.S. sponsor and that he's now reluctant to seek asylum in the U.S. because he's afraid of being sent to Mexico.
Mexico "is a terrible country where there is crime, corruption, cartels and even the police persecute you,'' he said. "They say that people who think about entering illegally won't have a chance, but at the same time I don't have a sponsor. . I came to this country to work. I didn't come here to play.''
The numbers of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has risen dramatically during Biden's first two years in office. There were more than 2.38 million stops during the year that ended Sept. 30, the first time the number topped 2 million. The administration has struggled to clamp down on crossings, reluctant to take hard-line measures that would resemble those of the Trump administration.
The policy changes announced this past week are Biden's biggest move yet to contain illegal border crossings and will turn away tens of thousands of migrants arriving at the border. At the same time, 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela will get the chance to come to the U.S. legally as long as they travel by plane, get a sponsor and pass background checks.
The U.S. will also turn away migrants who do not seek asylum first in a country they traveled through en route to the U.S. Migrants are being asked to complete a form on a phone app so that they they can go to a port of entry at a pre-scheduled date and time.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters aboard Air Force One that the administration is trying to "incentivize a safe and orderly way and cut out the smuggling organizations,'' saying the policies are "not a ban at all" but an attempt to protect migrants from the trauma that smuggling can create.
The changes were welcomed by some, particularly leaders in cities where migrants have been massing. But Biden was excoriated by immigrant advocate groups, which accused him of taking measures modeled after those of the former president. Administration officials disputed that characterization.
For all of his international travel over his 50 years in public service, Biden has not spent much time at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The only visit that the White House could point to was Biden's drive by the border while he was campaigning for president in 2008. He sent Vice President Kamala Harris to El Paso in 2021, but she was criticized for largely bypassing the action, because El Paso wasn't the center of crossings that it is now.
President Barack Obama made a 2011 trip to El Paso, where he toured border operations and the Paso Del Norte international bridge, but he was later criticized for not going back as tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors crossed into the U.S. from Mexico.
Trump, who made hardening immigration a signature issue, traveled to the border several times. During one visit, he crammed into a small border station to inspect cash and drugs confiscated by agents. During a trip to McAllen, Texas, then the center of a growing crisis, he made one of his most-often repeated claims, that Mexico would pay to build a border wall.
American taxpayers ended up footing the bill after Mexican leaders flatly rejected the idea.