How Visiting the U.S. Border Became a Potent Form of Political Theater

Vice President Kamala Harris went to the U.S.-Mexico border soon after she and President Biden took office, even though she had characterized such visits as empty politics just weeks before. President Barack Obama also toured the border during his time in the White House, though he came to see the trips as little more than photo ops.

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

As the immigration debate grows increasingly polarized, a trip along the 2,000-mile frontier has become a compulsory bit of political theater for leaders who want to show they care about immigration. The imagery at the border — the wall, the Border Patrol officers, the crowded detention facilities — serves as a potent backdrop for drawing attention to the crisis or, increasingly, for seizing on the issue to attack political opponents.

On Thursday, both of those factors will be at play when President Biden and Mr. Trump make dueling trips to the U.S.-Mexico border.

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

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

Immigration has become one of Mr. Biden’s biggest political liabilities as millions of migrants overwhelm the underfunded and underresourced system, something that Republicans like Mr. Trump are keen to highlight. A Gallup poll released on Tuesday found that Americans are most likely to name immigration as the most important problem in the country.

“This is a Hail Mary by Biden,” said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the main union for Border Patrol agents. Mr. Judd, who has long supported Mr. Trump, will join the former president in Eagle Pass on Thursday. Still, he said, he was in favor of the border bill in Congress that Mr. Biden supported and Mr. Trump opposed.

Immigration is at the center of Mr. Trump’s candidacy for president and many Republicans, especially in the House, would be reluctant to give an election-year win to Mr. Biden on an issue that has given them a powerful line of criticism toward the White House.

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

Decades later, President George W. Bush traveled to a Border Patrol post in New Mexico to rally support for his attempt to overhaul the nation’s immigration policy. While the Senate at that point supported a bill that included a path to eventual citizenship for many illegal immigrants, the House emphasized the need for border security.

Mr. Obama confronted starker divisions. In 2011, he made a speech in El Paso within sight of the border to push for legalization laws, in a nod to Latino voters who would be crucial in the 2012 election. But in 2014, as a record number of unaccompanied minors crossed the border, Mr. Obama faced relentless calls to visit the border, which he dismissed.

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

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

Almost as soon as Mr. Biden came into office, he and Ms. Harris faced demands by Republicans who said they should visit the border and see the crisis for themselves. Both of them have made the trip to El Paso; Ms. Harris in June 2021 and Mr. Biden in January 2023.

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

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

“It’s so politically sensitive right now,” Mr. Kerlikowske said. “To have them come and view the work and the difficulties that Customs and Border Protection in particular faces on the border tells you that this will be, if not No. 1, then certainly one or two in the topics of this presidential election cycle.”

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