Joe Biden’s Visit to El Paso Will Showcase a City Exhausted by Migration

In an effort to cut down on new arrivals, Biden’s administration Jan. 5 announced a new policy expanding opportunities for people from four countries to come to the US directly while restricting their ability to enter from Mexico

A Colombian immigrant bundles up against the cold after spending the night camped alongside the U.S.-Mexico border fence on Dec. 22, 2022 in El Paso, Texas.
By Shelly Hagan and Justin Sink
January 07, 2023 | 11:44 AM

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Bloomberg — Joe Biden’s choice of El Paso, Texas, as the site of his first presidential visit to the US-Mexico border puts a spotlight on a city that has struggled to deal with a four-fold surge in the number of migrants on its streets.

Mayor Oscar Leeser — a Democrat like Biden — has said shelters and charity groups in his city have been overwhelmed as El Paso became a popular crossing point over the past few months, putting it at the center of a national debate about border security.

Leeser even borrowed a tactic from Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who has been sharply critical of what he calls Biden’s failures at the border. The city spent millions of dollars on buses to transport migrants released into the city to other locales in the US, including New York. Unlike the state, El Paso coordinated the trips with officials in the destination cities to make sure services were waiting for them upon arrival.

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“El Paso has become the epicenter of the humanitarian crisis,” said Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based advocacy group that pushes for immigration reform.

Leeser, who oversees a city of 700,000 people, a quarter of whom are themselves immigrants, has been a vocal proponent of comprehensive immigration reform. He said in an interview with NPR last month that “we cannot continue to go in this direction.”

“As we all know, our immigration system is broken,” Leeser said in a statement. “I look forward to discussing our immigration challenges with the president and working with him as we work to address them in the most humane way possible.”

By visiting the border, Biden will be meeting demands from Republican officials as well as some of his Democratic allies to get a first-hand look at the situation. Critics say his administration has turned a blind eye to drug trafficking and human smuggling while failing to protect the country’s sovereignty.

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In an effort to cut down on new arrivals, Biden’s administration Jan. 5 announced a new policy expanding opportunities for people from four countries to come to the US directly while restricting their ability to enter from Mexico. The change allows up to 30,000 additional migrants per month from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela.

The city has a website where it recruits volunteers to aid the migrants, and stresses a humanitarian approach. It has spent almost $10 million to bus migrants to other cities.

El Paso officials say they began seeing a significant increase in illegal crossings in late August, with the number of people processed by immigration authorities and then released to the city and local humanitarian agencies growing from 250 a day to more than 1,000 a day in September. The number of migrant encounters by the border patrol in the El Paso region surpassed 55,800 in November, the latest data available, which far exceeds the average monthly figures in fiscal 2020 and 2021.

Outside of immigration, the city is also an important trade hub between the US and Mexico, with more than $80 billion in car parts, fruit, televisions and other imports and exports crossing through the city annually.

That flow was disrupted earlier this year when Abbott ordered state law enforcement officials to ramp up inspections of trucks coming from Mexico, a move he said was designed to deter smuggling, spurring massive shipping delays and backlash from Mexico’s government.

Biden’s visit to El Paso will be followed by a summit among the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the US in Mexico City in the days after. Trade and immigration are sure to be among the topics the leaders will discuss.

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At the White House, the decision to travel to El Paso was driven in part by the hope that local leaders — particularly those sympathetic to the administration — could help amplify its call for Congress to pass additional funding for border security and asylum processing.

Biden will specifically call on Republicans to fully fund his $3.5 billion request to surge resources to the border to deal with the expected crush of migrants whenever Covid-era health restrictions are lifted, according to a senior administration official who requested anonymity to detail the trip before details were announced. Biden will also assess border enforcement operations and meet with outside partners helping to manage the historic flow of migrants, the official said.

White House officials have also defended their existing efforts to provide assistance to El Paso, noting that the Department of Homeland Security has deployed additional agents and processing capabilities. The administration has also deployed linear ground detection systems, automated surveillance towers, and temporary holding facilities to the region.

Migrants who get processed through the asylum system and are released in the city are provided food, water and internet access, along with transportation assistance. Last month, Leeser declared a state of emergency as freezing temperatures combined with limited housing options created a dangerous situation.

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“The community has shown a lot of support to migrants,” said Garcia of the Border Network for Human Rights.

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