Joe Biden will tackle a humanitarian crisis and one of his biggest political problems on Sunday when he visits El Paso, Texas, to take a first-hand look at the migrant surge on the southern US border.
Biden’s first trip to the border as president is timed to coincide with a summit with the leaders of Mexico and Canada early next week in Mexico City. Migration will feature heavily on the agenda at that meeting, especially in talks with Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
For months, Biden has faced relentless attacks from Republicans who believe he has not been aggressive enough in curbing migration to the US by land. These concerns are shared by some Democrats, particularly those representing states and districts in Texas and Arizona.
But he has now turned his attention to the issue, with the midterm elections out of the way and as he prepares for a potential 2024 re-election campaign. The possible end of a Covid-related emergency health measure — known as Title 42 — that allows US authorities to reject migrants and is now under judicial review, has also stoked greater urgency for Biden.
As well as visiting one of the US cities on the front lines of migration from Mexico, Biden has announced a new plan to limit illegal immigration from the south. He is also renewing his calls for comprehensive immigration reform — an elusive legislative goal for years through multiple administrations.
“We can secure our border and fix the immigration system to be orderly, fair, safe and humane,” Biden said at the White House last week. “We can do all this while keeping lit the torch of liberty that has led generations of immigration to America — many of our forebears, many of yours,” he added.
Biden’s plan toughens America’s stance at the southern border significantly by proposing more expulsions and making clear that asylum seekers should apply for protection in transit countries rather than the US — which has already attracted a backlash from some Democrats.
Bob Menendez, Cory Booker, Ben Ray Luján and Alex Padilla, four Democratic senators, warned that Biden’s plan would “disregard our obligations under international law by banning families from seeking asylum at the border, likely separating families and stranding migrants fleeing persecution and torture in countries unable to protect them”.
But Biden is also trying to expand legal avenues for migration to the US from some of the most troubled countries in the region, so that people can travel by air to the US rather than take treacherous land journeys.
An initial programme allowing migrants from Venezuela to apply for entry into the US for up to two years as long as they passed a background check and had an American sponsor launched last year was expanded to include citizens of Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti. The US has capped the scheme at 30,000 migrants per month.
“We are glad to see that he seems to be facing the challenges at the border head-on now and it’s also good that the administration has been working on plans to have in place when the Title 42 policy does end,” said Dan Gordon, vice-president for communications at the National Immigration Forum think-tank. He added that there were some “positive steps” in Biden’s plan, but “turning asylum seekers away is not a solution over the long term”.
Republicans have given some credit to Biden for his greater attention to the border, even though for them it is too late and insufficient.
“For two years they have worked on more effectively processing people across the border rather than stopping people from crossing the border. That’s a major problem and now he’s at least saying he wants to deter people from coming across the border,” said James Lankford, a Republican senator from Oklahoma.
“I don’t know why [Biden]’s choosing to go now other than maybe just preparing for re-election in two years and he realises this is really chaotic and he’s got to figure out something.”
But Democrats believe that if Biden’s plan is effective, he can defuse an issue that has put him on the political defensive for nearly two years — and change the dynamic by putting pressure on Republicans to embrace broader reform rather than simply use immigration as a divisive political bludgeon.
“By going to the border and touring it himself it challenges Republicans to fix immigration together,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. “This is going to allow Biden to define the issue and draw a stark contrast with Republicans,” she added.