President Joe Biden rode high into the new year: His political party had far exceeded expectations in the midterm elections following a string of legislative victories, inflation appeared to finally be moderating, and the first days of 2023 exposed what the president himself called “embarrassing” drama and infighting within the ranks of the Republican Party.
But Biden’s first work trip abroad this year – a two-night visit to Mexico City following a brief stop at the border town of El Paso, Texas, on Sunday afternoon – is forcing the president to confront a political problem with no easy or quick solution: A record-breaking surge of migrant crossings at the southern US border under his watch.
Both stops underscore Biden’s predicament: While he is being blamed for record migrant surges, it’s a problem he cannot solve by himself. He will look to Congress and US neighbors in the region, namely Mexico, to step up as well.
The visit to El Paso on Sunday – hastily confirmed by the White House days after the details of the Mexico City trip was announced – took Biden to a city that perhaps, more than any other, has come to symbolize ground zero of the immigration conundrum confronting his administration. Images of asylum-seekers flocking to the border city and stories of strained resources have haunted the Biden White House, all while GOP calls for the president to visit the area and see the problem with his own eyes grew louder.
The White House resisted those calls for months, but advisers recognized the issue was becoming a growing political liability and that there was a risk that the lack of a presidential visit could take on a bigger life of its own.
But the several hours Biden spent on the ground in El Paso further highlighted the delicate and potentially fraught optics of such a visit. The president spent much of the visit focused on border security efforts and meeting with border enforcement personnel. But when he stopped at a migrant respite center in the town, reporters on the ground did not see any migrants during the visit, nor along the motorcade routes throughout the afternoon.
Asked to explain the thinking behind having Biden visit this specific migrant respite center and ultimately not meeting or interacting with any migrants there, a senior administration official told CNN: “There just weren’t any at the center when he arrived. Completely coincidental. They haven’t had any today.”
But when asked why Biden did not appear to see or meet with migrants, the White House told reporters Monday that the president wanted to focus on the groups “who are providing essential services to migrants.”
“I think from his perspective, where he really wanted to focus, those groups that we are supporting who are providing essential services to migrants,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters in Mexico City, while describing the non-governmental organizations, community leaders and faith-based leaders with whom the president met.
“What he has really looked for on this trip to the border was deeper insight on the real practicalities of how US program dollars and the elements of the US migration policy, are going to provide the necessary services, that’s where he wanted to focus his attention. That’s what he was able to do,” Sullivan added.
Ultimately, Biden’s highly anticipated first visit to the US southern border as president – which the White House previewed would be about “seeing for himself firsthand what the border security situation looks like” –saw him leave Texas without witnessing the worst of the humanitarian crisis that local elected officials and advocates have been warning about for weeks.
Nor did the president deliver any remarks, formal or informal, that could serve to advance his immigration position or rebut any of the criticism he has weathered on the issue.
In Mexico, where Biden will attend a North American Leaders Summit, the issue of migration will loom large. Mexico recently agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants per month from four countries who attempt to enter the US and are turned back.
And no immigration-related issue has confounded the administration more than Title 42 – the controversial policy enacted under former President Donald Trump to contain the spread of Covid-19 that has allowed border agents during Biden’s presidency to continue swiftly turning away migrants trying to enter the US.
While the White House has consistently said it supports the end of Title 42 – a policy that many Democrats and immigration advocates have described as inhumane – that public position has obscured the much more complicated reality: The eventual expiration of Title 42 is all but guaranteed to exacerbate what is already a serious problem at the US southern border.
Ahead of Biden’s visit to El Paso, the administration unveiled its most aggressive effort yet to discourage migrants from illegally crossing into the US – a program that effectively expands Title 42 by cracking down on people seeking refuge at the border with Mexico.
The approach is “humane,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby insisted to reporters on Friday.
Advocates and human rights organizations widely disagreed – the announcement drew swift and severe condemnation, laying bare the impossible task for the Biden White House of both appearing tough at the border and prioritizing humanitarian concerns.
The latest slate of border policy announcements also didn’t sit well with some Democratic lawmakers who expressed frustration in a private call with top Biden officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas – underscoring the challenge before the administration in trying to appease both sides of the aisle.
Mexico proves critical partner in migration management
The administration’s latest policy targeting Nicaraguans, Cubans and Haitians highlights the importance of the relationship between the United States and Mexico when trying to manage migration. The expansion of Title 42 to include more nationalities, for example, was largely dependent on Mexico’s buy in since it means more people being turned back to the country.
Homeland Security officials have repeatedly stressed coordination with Mexico in efforts to stem the flow of migration to the US-Mexico border through patrols and sharing of information.
“The president going down is hopefully going to reinvigorate those discussions,” one Homeland Security official told CNN.
During their meeting last July, Biden described the relationship as “strong and productive.”
While the US and Mexico have worked together on the issue, Biden and López Obrador have an at-times-tense relationship. That spilled into public view when López Obrador opted to skip the Summit of the Americas – a gathering hosted by the United States – last year citing the US decision not to invite Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.
López Obrador also recently criticized the US for “endorsing” former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo’s ouster. Last month, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the US “categorically” rejects “any act that undermines democracy,” and “contradict Peru’s constitution” after Castillo attempted to dissolve the Peruvian Congress. Castillo was subsequently impeached.
Experts say López Obrador has tried to assert himself as an equal to the US, a dynamic that may be in play during the summit.
“AMLO will try to reassert himself. He understands US has power. He flirts with pushing back rhetorically, but doesn’t go over the edge,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, stressing that it’s still a functional relationship.
Just days ahead of the summit, where drug trafficking is expected to be among the topics of discussion, Mexican authorities arrested Ovidio Guzmán, son of notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Asked about what steps the US would like to see Mexico take to reduce the trafficking and smuggling of fentanyl, Kirby said he did not want to “get ahead of the summit” but applauded the arrest of Guzman, a key fentanyl trafficker.
“That is not an insignificant accomplishment by Mexican authorities and we’re certainly grateful for that. So we’re gonna continue to work with them in lock step to see what we can do jointly to try to limit that flow, but it’s significant,” Kirby said.