Biden tours El Paso in first visit to U.S.-Mexico border as president

The president was greeted with a letter hand-delivered by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

By Glorie MartinezJanuary 9, 2023 2:21 pm,

President Joe Biden visited the U.S.-Mexico border Sunday for the first time since his inauguration.

He was met at the airport in El Paso by Gov. Greg Abbott, who handed the president a letter but was not invited to attend the rest of Biden’s four-hour visit. At a press conference, Abbott called Biden’s visit all for show “unless he begins to enforce the immigration laws that already exist.”

The stop in El Paso preceded a North American Leaders summit in Mexico City today and Tuesday, but it follows remarks Biden made in Washington last week announcing a new set of polices that have been largely criticized by immigration advocates. These new policies would allow 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the U.S. to work for up to two years, but they must apply from their home countries and find a sponsor in the U.S. first. And border officials would expand Title 42 authority to expel the same number of migrants from those countries if they try to get in without documentation. If more than that number are taken into custody, they could be deported and face a five-year ban on entering legally.

Angela Kocherga, news director at KTEP in El Paso, joined Texas Standard to share more about what the president did during his trip to the border. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about the president’s visit to El Paso. Where did he actually make stops?

Angela Kocherga: Well, it was a brief but jam-packed visit. The president started at the busiest international bridge, the Bridge of the Americas, where he met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. And they showed him some of the high-tech screening and other ways they detect smuggling attempts. He got to see some of the security issues. He also toured the border wall – fence, barrier, whatever we want to call it: the existing structure right there on the border with Border Patrol agents. That was an unexpected stop. And his final stop was at the Migrant Services Center set up by the county to help the thousands of families who’ve shown up seeking asylum.

It must have been a somewhat awkward open to the to the event, with Governor Abbott there to meet President Biden at the airport and handing him a letter. What’s in that letter?

Yes, well, the governor was invited to be there. He wasn’t invited along on the tour, but it was a very brief and cordial meeting. And he handed the president a letter with five demands for increasing border enforcement, including resuming, as he put it, the building of the border wall in Texas, using taxpayer funds. So really a brief meeting.

But beyond that, he also had an exchange with Democratic El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar. She was asked about what was said, because it was a little bit longer and you could see kind of a heated discussion. They went back and forth about immigration, about asylum. And she accused him of using the trip [as] political posturing, as she put it in a press conference – that the Republican governor wanted to use that letter to fundraise when he runs for president.

Let’s go back to what the president actually saw and his response. I believe the president did speak with reporters at some point during his visit.

He didn’t give any actual remarks, but he responded to a few questions when he was standing near the border fence/border wall and asked what he had learned so far. And he said that now the border needs more resources and that his administration is working to provide that. But beyond that, he didn’t give it much more of a conversation or a chance to ask him questions.

Of course, there is a spotlight on his visit, coming as it did right after announcing some new immigration rules and policies. Tell us a little bit more about how this change in approach has been received. 

Well, immigrant advocates and those who help migrants and asylum seekers say that the new process, which is modeled on something that was set up for Venezuelans, changes the asylum process to keep people from showing up at the border. And now it includes Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti, which account for the majority of the people we’re seeing here along the border. And they are being told they need to apply abroad and preferably in their home countries for asylum.

And immigrant advocates, one person told me, that’s ridiculous; they’re fleeing these countries and they’re not going to be able to do that. Migrants who are already here are kind of caught in limbo. Some groups are saying that something has to be done for the people already in the U.S. because it really is impossible for them to go back and try and apply. Now, Republicans say this is too little, too late, and all it’s doing is kind of shifting, you know, people south of the border, but that the process is still there and there’s still huge numbers that are trying to come into the country.

Doesn’t sound like President Biden’s really satisfying either side in this debate over how best to deal with the situation at the border. 

He’s not. And, you know, his administration says, including this homeland security secretary, we’re doing the best we can with our limited tools, and again pointing to Congress, which is supposed to provide some sort of immigration reform. And of course, we’ve seen for decades that has not happened. The only thing I can see both sides of the aisle agreeing on is that this is a broken system that needs to be fixed, but not that much fixing happening.

I understand some politicians are in town again today.

Yes, we have a rare bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. [John] Cornyn, and he is here to actually hear from border residents. They’re going to have a roundtable discussion and they’re going to talk to Border Patrol, law enforcement and business leaders about the issues. And so, again, bipartisan, which we haven’t seen – and border residents, Texans welcome that because instead of using the border as a backdrop, they hope that these senators will learn from the people who are here on the border.

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