President Joe Biden went to the US-Mexico border on Sunday for the first time since taking office, visiting an El Paso, Texas entry point at the center of debates over illegal immigration and smuggling.
He met with uniformed customs and immigration staff at the Bridge of the Americas checkpoint, a complex of inspection buildings and fencing that separates the two countries.
Officers, including sniffer dog specialists, demonstrated techniques for searching vehicles.
Biden was seeing “first hand… the incredible work of US Customs and Border Protection,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters.
Biden was also due to visit a migrant support services center, meeting with religious and humanitarian groups assisting “migrants fleeing oppression and economic collapse,” Mayorkas said.
After the brief stop in El Paso, Biden was flying on to Mexico City for a regional summit with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, where regional migration problems were also set to be at the top of the agenda.
Biden is under pressure in the face of spiraling numbers of attempts at illegal border crossings and applications for asylum by people on perilous journeys from regional countries afflicted by repression, poverty or severe crime.
Adding to the sense of crisis has been a surge in cross-border smuggling of the highly addictive and often deadly narcotic fentanyl.
His visit sought to respond to Republican accusations that he has been ignoring the situation.
However, he’s also taking flak from the left, with some Democrats and human rights organizations harshly criticizing his plan to expand expulsions of undocumented migrants from four key countries, while crafting a legal pathway for limited numbers to seek entry.
“Our border communities represent the best of our nation’s generosity and we’re going to get them more support while expanding legal pathways for orderly immigration and limiting illegal immigration,” Biden tweeted while on his way to Texas.
In a demonstration of at least some willingness for dialogue, Texas Governor Greg Abbott led a delegation of officials meeting Biden off Air Force One at the El Paso airport.
However, earlier Abbott, who is Republican, had characterized Biden’s trip on Twitter as “just a photo op and a game of pretend.”
“Biden does not want America to see the chaos that he has caused,” Abbott said.
The chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, accused Biden of putting “drug smugglers and human traffickers before American families.”
The White House, however, said Biden was already starting to gain some control over the unruly border, while adding that only new laws enacted by Congress can fundamentally change the country’s antiquated overall immigration system.
“We’ve very limited avenues for… dealing with a broken system,” Mayorkas said.
However, he said that since a peak in mid-December, numbers of people stopped crossing illegally have “dropped precipitously” from around 2,000 people a day to 700.