BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are scheduled to visit the southern border Thursday in what’s expected to be a dramatic split-screen moment as the 2024 presidential campaign ramps up over an issue that has confounded administrations of both parties for decades: immigration.

It’s Biden’s second trip to the border since he took office. His first was to El Paso in January 2023. This time, he’s set to visit Brownsville, a border town in the Rio Grande Valley that has long felt the impacts of migration up close.

“He wanted to show that it was important for him to go down there, to hear from Border Patrol agents, to hear from first responders,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing Wednesday. Biden will also deliver remarks to urge congressional Republicans to pass more border security funding, a White House official said.

Still, critics of the administration point out that Biden is visiting Brownsville at a time when the direst consequences of the migrant influx have shifted elsewhere. According to Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency that includes the Border Patrol, many more immigrants are now crossing at other parts of the border, such as Arizona and Eagle Pass, Texas. 

Texas National Guard troops stop immigrants trying to pass through razor wire
Texas National Guard troops stop immigrants trying to pass through razor wire after having crossed the border into El Paso from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Jan. 31.John Moore / Getty Images file

Eagle Pass is where Trump is expected to visit. He has visited the border many times before — and he announced his trip before the White House did. Biden said this week that he’d been planning to go but that he didn’t know “his good friend” would be there the same day. Two senior administration officials said the timing of the trip was meant to maximize its political impact a week before the State of the Union address. One of the officials said “we welcome the split screen” with Trump.

Trump joked of Biden on a radio show this week: “Well, we found out how to get him off his ass. It took me announcing that I’m going down to the border.”

On Wednesday, the White House insisted Biden’s trip had already been planned.

“We just can’t all of a sudden put something on the president’s schedule,” Jean-Pierre said, responding to a question about whether Trump’s visit prompted the White House’s announcement. “It takes time to do that.”

U.S. Border Patrol agents guard migrants that crossed into Shelby Park as they wait to be picked up for processing in Eagle Pass, Texa
Border Patrol agents guard migrants who crossed into Shelby Park as they wait to be picked up for processing in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Feb. 4.Michael Gonzalez / Getty Images

An NBC News poll from January found that 57% of registered voters said Trump would handle securing the border better, while 22% said the same for Biden. The poll found that 48% of people said they would trust Biden to treat immigrants humanely, while 31% said the same of Trump.

The Biden administration has been making the case that House Republicans — at Trump’s urging — torpedoed a bipartisan bill that included $20 billion for border security. It was hashed out in the Senate and endorsed by the Border Patrol Union. The White House said it would have added 100 immigration judges, 1,500 Customs and Border Protection personnel and 4,300 asylum officers, as well as more detention beds. It would have also funded the installation of more inspection machines to detect fentanyl at ports of entry.

But House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said the Senate version didn’t go far enough to deal with the border crisis. Democrats accuse the GOP of refusing to compromise to keep the immigration issue front and center during an election year to claim that Biden hasn’t done enough to stop the migrant influx.

With Congress failing to act, Biden has been considering executive actions to tighten asylum rules. Migrant advocates and progressive Democrats have urged him not to do so, arguing that making it harder for immigrants to claim asylum opens them up to dangerous conditions in Mexico. 

Republicans insist that the Trump administration’s border policies deterred illegal immigration and secured the border. Illegal crossings were lower during most of his term, but they did start to rise in late 2019 before the Covid pandemic. Before that, even Trump himself backed off one particularly controversial hard-line immigration policy — what was known as “zero tolerance” — which led to the forced separation of migrant families at the border in 2017.

When Biden took office in 2021, he promised a return to more “humane” immigration rules and immediately signed executive orders rolling back some Trump-era policies. In 2022, the Biden administration also ended a rule that was known as “Remain in Mexico,” which mandated that asylum-seekers wait across the border while their claims were adjudicated. 

But the White House soon found that its policies didn’t stem the flow of migrants after the pandemic limits lifted. Instead, record numbers of immigrants began arriving at the southern border. The Border Patrol reported 1,659,206 encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in the 2021 fiscal year, topping the previous highs of 1,643,679 in 2000 and 1,615,844 in 1986. 

Trump and his supporters blamed what they saw as Biden’s lax policies for the influx. The Biden administration argued the migration was due to other factors, including seasonal fluctuations, recent hurricanes in Central America and misinformation promoted by human smugglers.

Regardless, the migrants have kept coming. And coming. Border cities in Texas, such as El Paso and Eagle Pass, have been overwhelmed at times with an unprecedented influx that has stretched local resources thin and prompted frantic calls for federal help. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott escalated the border battle by assigning state troopers to patrol the border in defiance of the federal government. He also started busing migrants to what he called sanctuary cities across the country, which the White House has called a “political stunt.”  

Since then, major cities such as New York, Chicago and Denver have struggled to care for tens of thousands of migrants who have arrived. The White House said the stalled bipartisan border bill would have included $1.4 billion for cities and states and expedited work permits for immigrants who qualify.

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