How a Dead Border Deal Led to a Trump-Biden Border Duel

When Donald Trump stepped off his plane and onto the Texas tarmac, he approached a pool of reporters awaiting his arrival. “Nice weather. A very beautiful day,” he said. “But a very dangerous border. We’re gonna take care of it.” The former President’s trip to the southern border was more than one of his trademark spectacles; it was designed to highlight a signature campaign theme as he transitions toward the general election.

But his rival, President Joe Biden, isn’t ceding the field. Just as Trump was touring Eagle Pass, Texas, on Thursday, Biden was visiting another border town roughly 300 miles away. By torpedoing a bipartisan immigration reform bill, Biden argued, Trump was trying to engineer a continuation of the crisis for his own political gain. “Instead of telling members of Congress to block this legislation,” Biden said to Trump, “join me.”

The split-screen moment reveals the centrality of immigration as a 2024 election issue. Recent polls have found immigration to be the most important concern to voters, surpassing the economy, inflation, and crime. That doesn’t come out of nowhere. The surveys were conducted as the border situation worsens, with record levels of illegal crossings in recent months. U.S. Customs and Border Protection tallied nearly 250,000 arrests in December alone, up 31% from November.

To that end, a bipartisan group of senators recently negotiated a border security package that would restrict immigration by tightening the requirements to claim asylum and allocating billions in funding to expand border security and increase detention capacity. The proposal was partly fueled by Republicans’ insistence that they wouldn’t pass additional aid for Israel and Ukraine without increased border security. It marked a rare occasion on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and Democrats hardly eat meals together anymore let alone craft legislation.

But once Trump castigated the measure last month, spurring a rebellion from right-wing MAGA populists in both chambers, it was destined to fail. The swift opposition by Republicans, who had been calling for just such a proposal, seemed like a blatant attempt to keep the border emergency aflame when voters cast ballots in November. Then, a week later, House Republicans impeached Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas—not over alleged actions that might constitute a high crime or misdemeanor, but over the administration’s border policies. It was the first time in American history that Congress impeached a sitting cabinet secretary.

The gambit was a sign that Trump and his allies see an immigration outcry as one of their best opportunities to reclaim the White House.

Read more: As Trump Vies to Blows Up Border Deal, Migrant Crisis Could Get Worse

But for Biden, it represents a chance to turn the border into a liability for Republicans. “You know and I know it’s the toughest, most efficient, most effective border security bill this country has ever seen,” he said in Brownsville, Texas, on Thursday. “This bill was in the United States Senate, was on its way to being passed, and then was derailed by rank and file, partisan politics.”

Biden launched his presidency by signaling he would be the antithesis of Trump on immigration. After four years of an administration widely viewed as the most hostile to immigrants in decades, punctuated by its practice of separating children from their families, Biden reversed nearly all of his predecessor’s policies. He announced a 100-day moratorium on deportations, which was swiftly overturned by the courts; he halted construction of the border wall; and he stopped Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” initiative, which sent non-Mexican asylum seekers south of the border until their U.S. court date. (Biden restarted the program in December 2021, after a federal judge ruled against the White House’s attempt to terminate it.)

He also sought to discontinue Title 42, a controversial Trump-era pandemic measure that let border officials expel migrants without letting them apply for asylum. A federal judge blocked Biden from ending the program until it was automatically terminated last May, once the national Covid-19 public health emergency expired.

But since the border crisis has intensified, Biden has pivoted to a more aggressive posture, undercutting a 2020 campaign theme to allow more migrants to enter the country. He’s overseen a record number of deportations and he vowed to shut down the border if Congress sent him the border security deal. “I think there's no question that that is a product of political pressure,” says Ahilan Arulanantham, co-director of UCLA’s Center for Immigration Law and Policy.

In many Republicans’ eyes, the bipartisan deal was inadequate. The GOP-controlled House passed a more expansive and restrictive border bill last year, H.R.2, that would not only reduce the grounds for claiming asylum, but force Biden to finish Trump’s border wall. While Trump allies will cite H.R.2 as the new benchmark for immigration reform, critics say that’s only a pretext for them to have rejected a compromise.

Democrats also point to Republicans suddenly downplaying the need for any kind of legislation, period, when a border bill has been one of the foremost priorities of the conservative movement for decades. “I believe the president can take executive authority right now,” House Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters after a meeting with Biden on Monday.

It’s not that simple. Legal experts say that Biden can’t unilaterally override immigration law without legislation. The current federal statute requires the U.S. government to grant asylum to persons who have been forcibly displaced or who reasonably fear persecution in their home country. “Presidents do have a lot of authority when it comes to immigration, because immigration touches on sovereignty and foreign relations,” says Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration lawyer and Cornell Law School professor. “However, any president's authority is not unlimited.”

Trump supporters gather ahead of his visit to the US-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, TX, on Feb. 29, 2024<span class="copyright"> SERGIO FLORES—AFP via Getty Images</span>
Trump supporters gather ahead of his visit to the US-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, TX, on Feb. 29, 2024 SERGIO FLORES—AFP via Getty Images

Trump and his loyalists have signaled that they don't want Biden to be able to claim any kind of victory on the border. Rather, they are betting that they will have a better chance in November with an ongoing immigration surge, and the promise that Trump will fix it come January. If he returns to the Oval Office, Trump has pledged to order the largest deportation of migrants from the United States ever, rounding up and expelling millions annually. He has also refused to rule out separating families again.

In the meantime, after putting the kibosh on the Senate immigration deal, Trump has doubled down on a clear campaign strategy: to brand the border crisis as his successor’s failing. “This is a Joe Biden invasion,” he said Thursday. “This is a Biden-vasion.”

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