How visiting the American border became a powerful form of political theater

Vice President Kamala Harris went to the US-Mexico border shortly after she and President Biden took office, though just weeks earlier she had characterized such visits as empty politics. President Barack Obama also toured the border during his time in the White House, though he came to see the trips as more than a photo op.

Donald J. Trump used the border while president to drum up support for his anti-immigration policies, even signing his name on his “big, beautiful wall” with a Sharpie pen.

As the immigration debate becomes increasingly polarized, traveling along the 2,000-mile border has become a must-have piece of political theater for leaders who want to show they care about immigration. Images of the border—the wall, border patrol officers, overcrowded detention facilities—serve as a powerful backdrop for calling attention to the crisis or, increasingly, for confronting the issue and attacking political opponents.

On Thursday, both of these factors will be at play when President Biden and Mr. Trump travel to the US-Mexico border for a duel.

Mr. Trump will travel to Eagle Pass, Texas, where he will talk about crimes committed by migrants and blame Mr. Biden for increasing border crossings. Mr. Biden, more than 300 miles away in Brownsville, plans to speak with border agents and call out House Republicans who have emulated Mr. Trump and thwarted a bipartisan border bill that would have cracked down on illegal migration.

“It’s a relatively new phenomenon, when you go and make a big part of the border at the border,” said Tevi Troy, a presidential historian. “As long as this remains a problem, we’re going to have presidents who will either go to make a political point or if they don’t go, they’ll be pressured to do so.”

Immigration has become one of Mr. Biden’s biggest political commitments as millions of migrants flood an underfunded and under-resourced system, something Republicans like Mr. Trump are keen to highlight. Gallup poll released on Tuesday found that Americans are most likely to cite immigration as the most important issue in the country.

“This is Biden’s Hail Mary,” said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the main union for border patrol agents. Mr. Judd, a longtime supporter of Mr. Trump, will join the former president in Eagle Pass on Thursday. Still, he said, he is pushing for a border bill in Congress that Mr. Biden supported and Mr. Trump opposed.

Immigration is at the center of Trump’s bid for the presidency, and many Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, would be reluctant to hand Mr. Biden an election-year victory on an issue that has given them a strong line of criticism against the White House.

Border politics were not always so divisive. In 1971, Pat Nixon, then first lady, grabbed headlines when she greeted Mexican children and complained about fencing while visiting a border park in San Diego.

Decades later, President George W. Bush traveled to the Border Patrol in New Mexico to drum up support for his bid to overhaul the country’s immigration policies. While the Senate at the time supported a bill that included a path to eventual citizenship for many illegal immigrants, the House emphasized the need for border security.

Mr. Obama faced sharper divisions. In 2011, he gave a speech in El Paso within sight of the border to push for legalization legislation, a nod to Latino voters who will be crucial in the 2012 election. But in 2014, when a record number of unaccompanied minors crossed the border, Mr. Obama faced relentless calls to visit the border, which he rejected.

“I’m not interested in photo ops,” Obama said.

Mr. Trump was. He visited the border several times during his presidency and might have gone more had it not been for the pandemic.

Almost as soon as Mr. Biden took office, he and Ms. Harris faced demands from Republicans who said they should visit the border and see the crisis for themselves. Both traveled to El Paso; Mrs. Harris in June 2021 and Mr. Biden in January 2023.

Both have faced criticism. Republicans took Ms. Harris to task for going to El Paso instead of the lower Rio Grande Valley, which is considered the epicenter of the migration surge. Progressive Democrats say Mr. Biden should have spoken directly to the migrants.

Gil Kerlikowske, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection during the Obama administration, said that presidents and other top officials can show they prioritize the border with visits. But he also acknowledged that such visits can be more for political gain.

“It’s so politically sensitive right now,” said Mr. Kerlikowske. “For them to come and see the work and the difficulties that customs and border protection in particular are facing at the border tells you that it will be, if not number 1, then certainly one or two of the topics of this presidential election cycle. ”

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