Texas border cities offer Biden and Trump different backdrops for dueling visits

In this combination of photos, President Joe Biden, left, speaks on Aug. 10, 2023, in Salt Lake City, and former President Donald Trump speaks on June 13, 2023, in Bedminster, N.J. Biden and Trump will make dueling trips to the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, following the failed border deal that was opposed by the Republican front-runner. (AP Photo) (Andrew Harnik, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MCALLEN, Texas – Presidential visits to the border are usually short on substance and long on political theater and symbolism — starting with the choice of location.

President Joe Biden and his Republican rival, Donald Trump, are making dueling appearances Thursday on the Texas border, but Biden’s choice of Brownsville and Trump’s pick of Eagle Pass will provide sharply different backdrops.

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Trump, who frequently visited the border as president, is again making immigration a signature campaign issue as he seeks to return to the White House in November. He opposed a Biden-backed border security deal crafted by Senate negotiators amid an unprecedented surge in migration. The legislation failed.

The Democratic president, making his second visit to the border since taking office in 2021, says he may act on immigration without Congress. Here's a look at Thursday's contrasting venues:


The Rio Grande Valley, which includes Brownsville, gives Biden a platform where illegal crossings have dropped sharply. It was the busiest corridor for illegal crossings on the U.S. border with Mexico for nine years until Del Rio, which includes Eagle Pass, overtook it in the 2022 budget year.

Del Rio was the busiest of the Border Patrol's nine sectors last year as well, but Tucson, Arizona, began taking the top spot last summer.

Arrests for illegal crossings topped 2 million for the first time in each of the government's last two budget years, more than double Trump's peak year of just under 1 million in 2019. But Rio Grande Valley has turned into an exception during recent months as traffic has shifted to Arizona and California for a host of reasons.

The Rio Grande Valley's 7,340 border arrests in January were its lowest since June 2020, down 90% from more than 81,000 in July 2021, early in Biden’s presidency.

Del Rio has gone the opposite direction, exemplified by the arrival of about 16,000 predominantly Haitian migrants in the border town of Del Rio in September 2021. Eagle Pass, an hour’s drive from Del Rio, was relatively quiet during Trump’s presidency (and before) but became a hot spot under Biden. The Del Rio sector tallied more than 71,000 arrests in December, more than the entire 2019 budget year.


Brownsville has about 200,000 people, making it much more capable of absorbing large numbers of migrants passing through than Eagle Pass, where the population is about 30,000.

Nongovernmental organizations in Rio Grande Valley began coordinating with federal and local law enforcement in 2014 when unaccompanied children crossed the border in large numbers, giving years of experience. A network of churches and charitable organizations began work in McAllen and expanded to Brownsville, about an hour's drive away, when more families began crossing there several years ago.

Eagle Pass has less experience, though Mission: Border Hope, a group rooted in the United Methodist Church, has grown its welcome center from a few hundred to one that can hold over 1,000.

Brownsville, unlike Eagle Pass, has a large bus station and an airport. In Eagle Pass, many migrants leave on buses funded by Gov. Greg Abbott's “Operation Lone Star” border security campaign.


Both cities are longtime Democratic strongholds, but Republicans are gaining, especially in the Eagle Pass area. Trump narrowed his margin of defeat more in Maverick County, home to Eagle Pass, than in Cameron County, where Brownsville is seat.

In Congress, Eagle Pass is represented by Tony Gonzales, who kept the seat in Republican hands in 2020 after Will Hurd retired. Brownsville is represented by Democrat Vicente Gonzalez.

Abbott’s multibillion-dollar border campaign is largely based in Eagle Pass. Texas has deployed buoys in the middle of the Rio Grande, razor wire along train cars lining riverbanks, and started building a new base for members of the National Guard.

Brownsville has also seen a bigger state presence — layers of concertina wire, anti-climb fencing, and ever-present National Guard members turning migrants back to Mexico — but Eagle Pass has been a favorite backdrop for Abbott, who hosted 13 other Republican governors there on Feb. 4.

In January, Texas took control of a city-owned park in downtown Eagle Pass and denied access to federal immigration agents.


Spagat reported from San Diego.

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