Biden visits Mexico border as immigration takes centre stage

US President scheduled to land in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday

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President Joe Biden inspected part of the US-Mexico border on Sunday, marking his first trip there since taking office two years ago — a visit that Republicans said was long overdue.

Authorities are struggling with record numbers of undocumented migrants crossing into America, and immigration will probably take centre stage in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.

That is even more likely now that the Republicans hold control of the House of Representatives and have the power to launch investigations and hold hearings on the issue.

The trip to El Paso, Texas, was a brief stopover before Mr Biden's visit to Mexico City, where he and the leaders of Mexico and Canada will gather on Monday and Tuesday for a North American leaders' summit.

There are more crossings at El Paso than anywhere else along the 3,145km border with Mexico.

Mr Biden met border authorities to discuss immigration and other topics, including the increased smuggling of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, that kill tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Local residents Rafael Rodriguez and his sister Lupe Rodriguez waved a Biden sign from the 2020 presidential election as he drove into the complex around the Bridge of The Americas, connecting El Paso to Juarez, Mexico.

“It was a good feeling to have the President wave at us,” said Mr Rodriguez, 66.

The retired El Paso native, who supported Mr Biden in the 2020 election, said the issue along the border must be “taken care of.”

Migrant crossings into the US from Mexico have soared since Mr Biden took office in January 2021, with authorities stopping people 2.38 million times in the fiscal year that ended last September.

It was the first time the number exceeded 2 million.

Outside Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso, where hundreds of migrants are camping, there was a frenzy of activity in the hours leading up to Mr Biden's visit.

El Paso police officers detained several migrants and tried to clean up the area around the red-brick building.

Ingrid Johanna Sagra, a Colombian migrant, had hoped Mr Biden might come to see the conditions she and others have been staying in.

"He should come and find a solution to all this here on the border," Ms Sagra said.

She crossed into the US with her husband and son, 7, but because her husband is from Venezuela, he was separated from the family and she fears will be deported to Mexico.

But Mr Biden did not go past Sacred Heart, much to the frustration of the migrants there.

“He knows that we are and he didn’t acknowledge us,” said Ibrahim Martinez, a migrant from Venezuela.

Mr Martinez said he was unsure where he would go now or what he would do. He just knows he cannot go back.

“We sold everything to come here,” he told The National.

Father Rafael Garcia, the priest at Sacred Heart, said Mr Biden should see the problem for himself.

"I think the more he can see first-hand, it's good," he said.

Joe Barraza, who came to the US when he was 6, said Mr Biden should have seen the migrants.

"This is where the problem is right here," Mr Barraza told The National. "This is ground zero, this is where he should be."

Biden seeks help to tackle illegal migration at meeting with Mexico's Obrador

Biden seeks help to tackle illegal migration at meeting with Mexico's Obrador

Different political approaches

Publicly, at least, the Democrats and the Republicans take a different tack on immigration, with the Democrats seeking to find legal pathways for people to come to America.

The Republicans take a tougher line, as was seen under the Trump administration, which detained immigrants, many of them children, en masse.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, was dismissive of Mr Biden's visit.

“All he’s going to do down there is rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic," Mr Abbott told Fox News.

"He’s not going to achieve any solutions that will make the border safer, more secure and stop illegal immigration."

Mr Biden spent close to four hours speaking to local officials. While many here were happy that he had finally visited, they was a consensus the trip was too short.

"Not nearly long enough," said Richard Pineda, Director of the Sam Donaldson Centre for Communications Studies at the University of Texas El Paso.

Migrants in El Paso protest before US President Joe Biden's visit - in pictures

The challenge facing the US on its southern border “is something that is not unique to the United States", Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told ABC News.

"It’s gripping the hemisphere. And a regional challenge requires a regional solution."

Mr Biden announced a multifaceted approach to immigration along the southern border last week, which in part would include an expansion of a programme, known as Title 42.

The programme was enacted as a health emergency policy under the Trump administration but has also been used by the Biden government to block asylum seekers hoping to enter the US.

Under the new guidelines, migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti will have an expanded legal pathway to apply for entry into the US if they pass background checks and have a financial sponsor in America.

Updated: January 10, 2023, 8:41 AM