Biden and Trump Trade Accusations at Southern Border

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump speaks with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) during a visit to Eagle Pass, Tex., on Thursday.

BROWNSVILLE, Tex. – President Biden and former president Donald Trump visited separate Texas border towns 300 miles apart on Thursday, blaming each other for a surge in illegal immigration and seeking to take the offensive on an issue that is shaping up to be a critical and volatile factor in this year’s presidential contest.

Biden used his visit to Brownsville, a Democratic stronghold, to blame Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, for killing a bipartisan border bill that would have provided $20 billion to hire thousands of new Border Patrol agents and asylum officers and increase detention capacity. The measure also would have included a trigger mechanism to effectively shut down the border, which Biden said he would have been willing to invoke.

Biden said the bill was on its way to passage until Trump “came along and said, ‘Don’t do that, it will benefit the incumbent.’” The president added sarcastically, “It’s a hell of a way to do business in the United States of America.”

Addressing Republican members of Congress, Biden urged them to “show a little spine” and demonstrate independence from Trump. “Let’s remember who we work for, for God’s sake,” Biden said. He ended by addressing Trump directly: “Instead of playing politics with this issue, join me – or I’ll join you – in telling the Congress to pass this bipartisan border security bill. We can do it together.”

About 300 miles away in Eagle Pass, Trump renewed his embrace of a tough-on-immigration message that was central to his political rise in 2016 and that he has made a centerpiece of his third presidential campaign. “This is a Joe Biden invasion, this is a Biden invasion,” the former president said of the influx of illegal migrants.

“The United States is being overrun by the Biden migrant crime,” Trump added. “It’s a new form of vicious violation to our country.” Experts say most of the evidence suggests that undocumented immigrants do not cause more crime.

The remarkable split-screen – the presidential contenders each delivered their speeches at about the same time – provided a preview of what could be a long and bitter general election campaign. Biden took office announcing his determination to handle immigration more humanely than Trump, whose rhetoric on migrants was often incendiary. But he has faced periodic images of chaos at the border during his presidency, and in recent weeks he has taken a harder line.

Ahead of his remarks, Biden received a briefing from Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In each session, presenters highlighted how few resources they have to address the surge of migration at the border, the flow of fentanyl and the need to process asylum claims.

Biden, in response, continually stressed that the bipartisan border security bill would have allowed for the hiring of significantly more personnel and help alleviate each agency’s problems.

Biden, who polls show faces widespread disapproval of his handling of immigration, has in recent weeks tried to take control of the issue by reminding voters that he embraced the bipartisan immigration measure and its tough enforcement provisions. Republican lawmakers had demanded border security measures as part of a sweeping aid bill for Ukraine and Israel, but they refused to back the package after Trump said on Truth Social that enacting it would be “another Gift to the Radical Left Democrats.”

Trump has long made immigration the focus of his “America First” agenda. He campaigned in 2016 on building a U.S.-Mexico border wall and has vowed to enact “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” in a second term. He has repeatedly blamed Biden for a record number of apprehensions since 2021.

Trump has also used dehumanizing language to describe undocumented immigrants, suggesting that they are waging an “invasion” of the United States and accusing them of “poisoning the blood of our country,” prompting civil rights activists and historians to compare his language to Nazi rhetoric.

On Thursday, the former president cast undocumented immigrants as deeply alien. “We have languages coming into our country, we have nobody that even speaks those languages,” he said. “They’re truly foreign languages, nobody speaks them. They’re pouring into our country and they’re bringing with them tremendous problems, including medical problems, as you know.”

Biden and Trump chose border cities for their Thursday appearances that reflect their dueling approaches to immigration. Brownsville is in sync with Democrats’ traditional approach of balancing border security with humanitarian considerations. Eagle Pass, by contrast, has become a symbol of Republican defiance against Biden’s handling of immigration. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) seized a park in the city earlier this year, shutting out U.S. Border Patrol agents who had long used it as a staging point.

Illegal border crossings soared in the months after Biden took office, signaling a more relaxed policy and immediately rolling back many Trump-era restrictions. As immigration surged, Biden warned that he would still enforce immigration laws, and he temporarily kept in place a Trump pandemic policy known as Title 42 that allowed authorities to quickly expel border crossers.

Even so, the number of people taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol has reached the highest levels in the agency’s 100-year history under Biden, averaging 2 million per year.

In the U.S. interior, the Biden administration has said that ICE agents should not arrest someone just for being undocumented, to prevent longtime residents from being deported. Officials say they are deporting or removing record numbers of border crossers and prioritizing the removal of serious offenders. Many migrants say they are surrendering to seek protection in the United States and permission to work.

Biden laid the blame for the demise of the bipartisan border bill at the feet of Trump and his Republican allies.

“I want the people to understand clearly what happened here: This bill was in the United States Senate, was on its way to being passed, and it was derailed by rank partisan politics,” Biden said. “The U.S. Senate needs to reconsider this bill, and those senators who oppose it need to set politics aside and pass it on the merits, not whether it’s going to benefit one party or the other party.”

In Eagle Pass, Trump, alongside Abbott, received a briefing on Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s state-led border crackdown. He then took a tour of Shelby Park and walked toward the Rio Grande, the river separating the United States and Mexico. People across the border shouted his name as he took the tour.

Trump praised Texas’ immigration policies, while criticizing Democratic governors in Arizona and California for not doing enough to secure the border.

Trump continued to paint undocumented immigrants as violent, describing them as “coming from jails and they’re coming from prisons and they’re coming from mental institutions.”

Most of those arrested at the southern border do not have criminal convictions, federal data show.

A February Gallup survey found that voters ranked immigration as the single most important problem facing the country, followed by the government, the economy and inflation. A Marquette Law School national poll this month found 53 percent of registered voters saying Trump would do a better job handling the issue, while 25 percent said Biden would.

Frustrated by Congress’s inaction, Biden has been considering executive actions that could limit unauthorized migration and restrict the asylum process, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. But he did not announce any new actions Thursday, and it is not clear if the White House will be able to identify actions the president can take without congressional authorization.

Many Democratic operatives concede that it would be difficult for Biden to completely upend the political dynamic on immigration. But the White House hopes that his tougher stance, and his repeated reminders that he was eager to sign a border enforcement bill that Trump torpedoed, can at a minimum blunt Republicans’ advantage on the issue.

Trump’s immigration platform includes reinstating a travel ban from his previous presidential term that restricted people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The Trump campaign has also said he would sign an executive order that would withhold passports, Social Security numbers and other government benefits from the children of undocumented immigrants.

While Biden has taken political hits on immigration since becoming president, Trump also faced a backlash during his own time in the White House for some of his harder-hitting policies. As president, Trump signed executive orders to enact his travel ban, but it faced numerous court challenges and was significantly reduced in scope. His administration also drew fire for a policy of separating migrant families, which was seen even by some conservatives as unduly harsh.

Trump made building a border wall a central promise of his 2016 campaign, and his administration built more than 450 miles of new border fencing at a cost of $11 billion. Despite that construction, illegal border crossings have surged from 500,000 per year in 2020 to more than 2 million last year.

In Thursday’s appearance at Eagle Pass, the former president said that he had spoken to the parents of Laken Hope Riley, a Georgia nursing student who was allegedly killed by Jose Ibarra, a Venezuelan migrant. U.S. government records show Ibarra came to the country in 2022 after crossing the border illegally. Riley’s death is one of several cases in recent years that Republican politicians have highlighted to depict migrants as dangerous.

“The monster charged in the death is an illegal alien migrant, who was led into our country, and released into our communities by Crooked Joe Biden,” Trump said. “Joe Biden will never say Laken Riley’s name, but we will say it.”