The road to the White House begins at the border

Immigration has become the main issue of the campaign, eight months before the presidential elections in the United States

A group of migrants crosses the Rio Grande to enter the United States through Eagle Pass (Texas), on February 24.CHENEY ORR (REUTERS)

Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student, went running on Thursday, February 22, at the University of Georgia in Athens. She never returned to her room. She was found dead that same day in a wooded area of campus. The next day, José Antonio Ibarra, a 26-year-old Venezuelan who crossed the border illegally in September 2022, was arrested and charged with the murder. At that time, the tragic murder became a political weapon. “Biden’s border INVASION is destroying our country and killing our citizens!” former president Donald Trump posted on Truth Social, calling Ibarra a “monster.” Although studies deny any correlation between immigration and crime, Trump has returned to the xenophobic script that paved his way to the White House in 2016. The border has become a battlefield in the November presidential elections. The fact that both Biden and Trump decided to visit the banks of the Rio Grande on Thursday is proof of this.

Many issues are on the agenda for the November 5 elections. The economy, abortion, insecurity, Biden’s age, 81, (and to a lesser extent Trump’s, 77), the risks to democracy, the criminal charges against the former president and even foreign policy — which rarely sways the electorate — are all set to influence the outcome. But voters see immigration as the country’s main problem, according to a Gallup poll published last week. Some 28% of citizens (including 57% of Republicans) say it is the most important problem the U.S. is facing, a response that follows the wave of illegal crossings during the Biden presidency, which reached a record high of 250,000 in December.

The labor market has absorbed (and needs) manual labor from abroad. Immigration partly explains the strength of the U.S. economy and its unexpected resistance to rising interest rates. However, the massive arrival of immigrants has also overwhelmed social services in many cities. Even the Democratic mayors of cities such as New York, Chicago and Denver have sounded the alarm.

The president of the United States, Joe Biden, during his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville (Texas), on February 29.Kevin Lamarque (REUTERS)

Democrats are aware that the issue could hurt Biden’s chances to get re-elected. For this reason, the president has decided to go on the offensive, as seen by his visit to Brownsville (Texas) on Thursday. Wearing a black cap and no tie, he walked with Border Patrol agents along the shore of the Rio Grande, which serves as the natural border between the U.S. and Mexico. He also met with customs personnel, enforcement and asylum officers and immigration judges.

About 310 miles away, Trump peeked out from behind the wire fences on the bank of the same river in Eagle Pass, which has become ground zero in the political battle between the federal government and Texas Governor Greg Abbott — who accompanied the former president on his visit — over who controls immigration.

Both Trump and Biden came to the same verdict. The U.S. immigration system is broken, and the situation is unsustainable: “It’s real simple. It’s time to act. It’s long past time to act,” said Biden, who briefly explained the core of the problem. Immigrants who cross illegally claim asylum when they are detained. “The process to get a decision on an asylum claim takes five to seven years. Now, you all know it down here, but the people around the country don’t understand it. That’s far too long,” he continued. “This encourages more people to come to the country.”

Democrats and Republicans agreed on a Bipartisan Border Security bill that provides more resources to immigration services and that, according to Biden, would allow cases to be processed in six months. Immigrants are willing to pay thousands of dollars to criminal gangs to cross into the United States because they know that it may take years for their case to be heard. If this process is accelerated, “that would have a serious deterrent effect on those coming north,” argued Biden at the Brownsville Border Patrol command center before dozens of agents. “Six months, seven years... two different things,” he said. “They’re not going to pay the cartels thousands of dollars to make that journey knowing that it’ll be turned around quickly.”

The bill would also give the president emergency authority to temporarily close the border when the number of crossings exceeds a certain threshold and overwhelms the capacity of immigration services. However, when that bill was on its way to being approved, Republicans backed down due to pressure from Trump. As a result, Democrats have been arguing that Republicans do not want a solution, but rather a problem that benefits them at the polls. “It was on its way to being passed. Then, it was derailed by partisan politics,” said Biden in Brownsville before appealing directly to Trump.

“I understand my predecessor is in Eagle Pass today. So, here’s what I would say to Mr. Trump: Instead of playing politics with the issue, instead of telling members of Congress to block this legislation, join me — or I’ll join you — in telling the Congress to pass this Bipartisan Border Security bill,” he said, appealing for a compromise.

But political consensus and respect for the law is not an idea that Trump is fond of. A few months ago, the former president said that if he wins the November election, he would be a dictator for a day, citing immigration as his main objective: “We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.”

And just as in the 2016 campaign he accused Mexico of sending “rapists” and “criminals” into the United States, now, Trump — who is the son, grandson and husband of immigrants — is using xenophobic rhetoric with echoes of Nazism to accuse immigrants of “poisoning the blood of the country.”

Former president Donald Trump at Eagle Pass, on February 29.Go Nakamura (REUTERS)

In Eagle Pass, on Thursday, the former president used the murder of Laken Riley to claim that Biden has “the blood of countless innocent victims” on his hands. “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.

After condemning Riley’s murder as a heinous crime, Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, an organization that supports immigrants, told EL PAÍS that “he way in which the GOP, led by Donald Trump, is using this tragic event for political gain is revolting.” “It’s strategic racism; a well-worn tactic from a familiar playbook with the sole purpose of turning this tragedy into fodder for a political objective and narrative that migrants and asylum seekers are dangerous threats when the facts demonstrate otherwise. In study after study, and study, and study, and more study, the facts are clear: immigrants have lower crime rates than the rest of the population,” she added by email.

The former president, however, is willing to take that strategy to the limit in order to win over voters. “They’re coming from jails, and they’re coming from prisons, and they’re coming from mental institutions, and they’re coming from insane asylums, and they’re terrorists,” he said in Eagle Pass. “The United States is being overrun by the Biden migrant crime. It’s a new form of vicious violation to our country,” he continued, arguing that those leading the “invasion” are “men of fighting age” who arrive looking like “warriors.” “This is like a war,” he declared. It is, of course, a political war.

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