Feb 29, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Split screen: Biden, Trump and two very different border trips

Photo illustration of Biden and Trump looking in different directions in front of a US-Texas border wall.

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photos: Justin Sullivan, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden and former President Trump both will visit the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday — but their trips will focus on dramatically different views of an issue that has rocketed to the top of voters' concerns.

Why it matters: Biden's visit to Brownsville, Texas, underscores a shift in his campaign to more forcefully address illegal immigration — one of his biggest vulnerabilities in seeking re-election.

  • Trump, who began his political career in 2015 by casting undocumented immigrants as criminals, has built on that reputation since then, promising mass deportations if he wins the White House again in November.

Zoom in: Biden's and Trump's destinations in Texas reflect the border stories they want to tell.

  • In Brownsville, Biden will argue that the U.S.-Mexico border can be orderly and efficient with more resources from Congress — where Republicans have balked at a border spending package that Democrats have pressed for.
  • "It's important to see how we process migrants on our border," said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), who represents Brownsville and plans to fly to South Texas with Biden on Air Force One.
  • Along the Rio Grande at the southern tip of Texas, migrant border crossings recently have been manageable for U.S. officials.
  • "In my section, we see a much more orderly process than elsewhere in the (Rio Grande) valley," Gonzalez said.

Republicans agree — but say Biden will see a sanitized and unrepresentative stretch of a border in crisis.

  • "We do have a crisis here in South Texas, but the numbers do look better here than Eagle Pass," said former Rep. Mayra Flores (R-Texas).
  • "And that's the reason why (Biden is) choosing Brownsville — because it's nowhere near as bad as it was a few months ago."

Zoom out: Three hundred miles upstream, the spectacle Trump wants to draw attention to is decidedly different.

  • Each day in what federal agencies call the Del Rio sector, U.S. officers have been catching thousands of migrants who crossed the border illegally.
  • Eagle Pass, a border city of about 28,000 people, has become ground zero for the legal showdown between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and the Biden administration.
  • Abbott has deployed the Texas National Guard and other state law enforcement to the border area, erected miles of concertina wire along the river and taken control of a local park that once was used by the U.S. Border Patrol to process migrants and asylum seekers.
  • Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has vowed to continue using the wire despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing the Biden administration to remove it.

By the numbers: Brownsville is in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border, where there were 76,000 illegal border crossings in the first four months of this fiscal year — Oct. 1 through the end of January, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.

  • In the Del Rio sector, home to Eagle Pass, there were more than twice that — 169,000.
  • One of the busiest sectors of the border is in Arizona. Border officials in the Tucson sector, which spans the state, have registered nearly 251,000 illegal crossings during the same four-month period.

Flashback: Democrats and Republicans have long chosen different border destinations to drive their divergent narratives on immigration.

  • In 2021, for example, Republicans frequented McAllen, Texas, while Democrats typically chose what was then a calmer sector in El Paso.

Between the lines: On his trip to Brownsville, Biden also is likely to get a sense of how immigration politics are dividing his own party, with some border Democrats, including Gonzalez, calling on him to do more to stem the flow of migrants.

  • Gonzalez plans to use his time on Air Force One to press Biden to set up "safe zones" in third countries where potential asylum seekers can apply for protection far away from the southern border.
  • "I envision it like the green zone in Iraq," he said. "They would meet with asylum officials there and then not have to make that dangerous trek" to the U.S.

Other Hispanic lawmakers have put Biden on notice that he shouldn't issue an executive order to restrict migrants' ability to claim asylum.

  • Republicans who blocked passage of a bipartisan bill in Congress to provide more funding for border security have called on Biden to use an executive order to limit asylum.
  • Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has said it's "unbelievable' Biden is considering restricting asylum.
  • "I've had some disagreements with certain aspects of policy surrounding some border issues," Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) told Axios.
  • "But I'm also open to making strategic investments and policy decisions, understanding that we have a broken immigration."
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