President Joe Biden arrived in El Paso at 12:26 p.m. Sunday for a four-hour visit at a time when the city has been the focal point of a national debate over how the United States deals with immigration.

His first meeting was with one of his fiercest critics, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who spoke to Biden for about a minute at the bottom of the jet ramp from Air Force One. Abbott said he had given the president a letter outlining what he said were solutions to the nation’s immigration challenges.

“The president asked for solutions from Republicans. In the letter that I gave him, I provided five solutions that already exist under current United States law. All we ask the president to do is to enforce these five standards under American law already,” Abbott said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott discusses his brief meeting with President Joe Biden in El Paso on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

When reporters asked Biden about Abbott’s letter Sunday afternoon, he said: “I haven’t read it yet.”

Abbott’s suggestions are long-standing Republican priorities, including aggressive prosecution of illegal crossings between ports of entry. That approach was tried and abandoned by President Trump after it resulted in the separation of thousands of families. 

Abbott also spoke for several minutes near Air Force One with Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who flew in with Biden. He gave her the letter he had given to the president.

“I told him that Texans’ precious resources could be better used and Texas could also choose to treat migrants with dignity. He said that migrants should go to the ports. I responded that the feds are currently not allowing that because of Title 42 and President Biden is changing that. I told him that if he wanted to help, he needed to convince congressional Republicans to expand legal pathways. He said going between ports is illegal, and I reminded him that seeking asylum is legal,” Escobar said.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, said in a tweet thread that Abbott’s proposals “ignore reality” and are contradictory at times. He said you can’t aggressively prosecute people expelled to Mexico under public health laws, for example.

From the airport, Biden went to the Bridge of the Americas to see demonstrations of drug interdiction techniques by Customs and Border Protection officers. After leaving the bridge, the presidential motorcade stopped along the border wall with Mexico and Biden walked with Border Patrol agents.

Asked by reporters what he’s learned on the border, Biden said: “They need a lot of resources. We’re going to get it for them.”

Biden then went to El Paso County’s Migrant Support Services Center to meet with government and nonprofit leaders who have been at the forefront of El Paso’s response to the migrant influx.

What El Pasoans shared with Biden

Following Biden’s departure from El Paso shortly before 4:30 p.m., Escobar held a press conference where she and other area leaders, including El Paso Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz, shared some of the experiences and conversations they had with the president.

“So it’s been an amazing day in my life,” Seitz said. “I certainly never expected when I became a religious leader finding myself in a car with the president.”

Bishop Mark Seitz, who accompanied President Joe Biden during his visit to El Paso, tells how he gave the president a prayer card with a handwritten note from a young migrant in Juárez who prayed to be reunited with her family soon. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Seitz said he told Biden that while he was glad there were new avenues for people to apply for asylum, the new immigration guidelines will leave many people “trapped and in even worse circumstances” because many people won’t qualify under the rules. Many others are already on their journey to the United States, Seitz said, including hundreds, if not thousands, who are in Juárez.

Among them, he said, is a young girl in a Juárez shelter who wrote a message on a holy card depicting the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on one side. 

On the back of the card, the girl wrote in Spanish: “Señor, te pido que me saques de aquí pronto, ayudame con mi caso quiero estar con mi mami y mi hermana pronto. Amen.”

El Paso Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz presented this holy card to President Biden on Sunday. The message was written by a young girl in a migrant shelter in Juárez praying that she get out soon and join her mother and sister in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Hope Border Institute)

“Lord, I ask that you get me out of here fast, help me with my case, I want to be with my mommy and my sister soon. Amen,” the card read.

El Paso’s challenges

The visit comes three days after the administration announced new policies meant to deter migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti from trying to enter the United States without authorization. The new plan extends similar efforts in October to deter migrants from Venezuela

Much of the growth in migration since the summer of 2022 has taken place in El Paso. The city government has opened shelters to temporarily house migrants as they arrange transportation elsewhere in the country. 

Hundreds of Venezuelans have been sleeping on sidewalks and alleys near Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the Greyhound bus station, despite attempts by the Catholic diocese and others to get them into shelters. 

Border Patrol agents have largely cleared those encampments in recent days by taking migrants into custody, where they likely faced expulsion to Mexico. El Paso Sector Border Patrol officials said their actions were not connected to Biden’s visit. 

At the press conference, Escobar was asked whether she knew if the federal or local governments had asked Border Patrol to clear the migrants from places they had been congregating, Escobat responded, “Absolutely not.”

“I was alerted by Border Patrol that there would be respect for the sensitive areas but anything outside of that there will probably be enforcement and this was some time ago, long before we knew the president was coming,” Escobar said.

Ricardo, a migrant from Venezuela, waits Sunday, Jan. 8, on the sidewalk near Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where he has been for days after crossing from Mexico. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Escobar said that she and Mayor Oscar Leeser have shared photos and videos of what was happening at the El Paso border and streets, including some Leeser shared with him during his visit Sunday.. 

“And we both witnessed him looking at them,” Escobar said. “But there’s no way any of this could have been kept secret from the leader of the free world. I guarantee.”

Biden’s controversial policy changes at the border

The new policy announced by the White House on Thursday creates new opportunities for legal entry for as many as 30,000 people per month from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti. At the same time, it allows for immediate expulsion to Mexico for people from those countries who enter the United States without authorization.

The expulsions are made under Title 42, a public health law invoked by President Trump in 2020 on the grounds that it could reduce risk of COVID-19 spread. As a candidate and as president, Biden criticized the use of Title 42. But he also has in some ways expanded its use as a means of trying to reduce historically high numbers of border crossings.

As he prepared to come to El Paso, Biden has faced criticism from people who think his new policies are too harsh, and from those who don’t think they go far enough.

About 100 people gathered at Chihuahuita Park on Saturday morning to protest the expansion of Title 42 and Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, which has sent Texas National Guard soldiers and Department of Public Safety troopers to El Paso and other border communities.

“The Biden administration is afraid of the numbers of people that may cross over initially by lifting Title 42, so instead we are going to continue to use Title 42 to expel as many asylum seekers as we possibly can. We are going to use a Centers for Disease Control policy and convert it into an immigration enforcement policy,” Ruben Garcia, the founder of Annunciation House, said at the protest.

With shouts and tears, Venezuelan migrants outside of Sacred Heart Catholic Church welcome activists who marched against the expansion of Title 42 on Saturday, Jan. 7. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Garcia was among El Paso nonprofit leaders who met with Biden on Sunday.

Seitz, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, praised the new humanitarian parole opportunities for some migrants in a statement last week. But he criticized the additional use of Title 42 expulsions.

“This is a drastic departure from the Administration’s promise to create a ‘fair, orderly, and humane’ immigration system and will only exacerbate challenges on both sides of our border. Even for those who are permitted to enter the United States, we continue to be concerned about their access to housing, work authorization, legal services, and other pressing needs,” Seitz said.

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...

Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at UTEP and a freelance photojournalist in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. She specializes in photography as a tool to explore insecurity,...

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.