Biden takes first presidential trip to US-Mexico border as officials report surge of migrants

Joe Biden heads to El Paso, Texas today as his administration faces important questions about how to address the ongoing tide of thousands of Central- and South Americans hoping to seek asylum in the US every month.

The president’s voyage marks his first trip to the US-Mexico border as president and comes specifically as his administration is fighting in the courts to end Title 42, a controversial public health protocol used by both the Trump administration and now his own as legal justification for turning migrants away at the border.

His administration just recently expanded that authority to create a new guideline authorising US Customs and Border Protection to turn away migrants from several countries; in October of 2022 the system was invoked to turn away all Venezuelan migrants encountered at the border, with administration officials citing a massive surge of both individuals and families originating from the South American country.

Then last week Mr Biden’s team expanded the policy, stating that it would now affect all asylum applicants from Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua as well. In each case, a new pathway has been established for migrants with sponsors to apply and be admitted.

But even with the expanded legal authority his administration wields thanks to Covid-19, Mr Biden’s team faces criticism for the general continued trend of thousands of migrants crossing the border illegally every month. Many who are encountered by US Customs and Border Protection are processed at holding facilities and deported while others are released; according to CBP statistics, nearly a quarter of a million people were encountered by agents in September, the most recent month for such data. Tens of thousands were expelled immediately and continue to be expelled every month.

Driving the issue are several factors, including America’s long-neglected immigration law framework that lawmakers have tried and failed countless times to reform. Economic conditions, political instability and violence caused by organised crime across Central and South America also continue to be major drivers of northward migration.

Vice President Kamala Harris was appointed by Mr Biden to lead his administration’s efforts to address those factors, but the efforts of the White House have yet to achieve meaningful results. Meanwhile, red state leaders like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas continue to protest the Democrats’ supposed inaction and have organised bus caravans of recently-arrived migrants to cities with Democratic leadership in an attempt to keep media attention focused on the issue.

The prospect of passing any immigration reform through Congress currently looks dimmer than ever, thanks to a new slim Republican majority in the House largely expected to be beholden to its most conservative members. It isn’t clear what, if anything, the Biden administration plans or even could do to blunt the trend short of reversing course and embracing the policies put in place by the Trump administration to control migration that were loudly denounced as inhumane and were of questionable effectiveness when it came to actually dissuading people from migrating north.

According to the White House, the president plans to “assess border enforcement operations and meet with local officials who have been important partners in managing the historic number of migrants fleeing political oppression and gang violence in Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Cuba”, a clear nod to the four countries impacted by his Title 42 expansion.

He told reporters this past week that he was hoping to wait for a final decision on the fate of Title 42 before visiting; the Supreme Court ordered that it remain in place last month but the legal battle over the policy continues.

“I wanted to make sure that I knew what the outcome was, at least the near outcome was, on Title 42, before I went down,” Biden said, while acknowledging that such a plan was no longer feasible. “I don’t like Title 42. But it’s the law now, and I have to operate within it.”

Republicans, meanwhile, blasted Mr Biden’s trip as “nothing more than a photo op” in an official statement from the RNC. Ronna McDaniel, GOP chairwoman, is conducting her own counter-visit to the border at the same time the president will be there.

Following Sunday’s trip to the border, Mr Biden is set to fly to Mexico City for attendance of the North American Leader’s Summit and bilateral meetings with the leaders of both Mexico and Canada.