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Biden and Trump were both at the border today, staking out ground on a key 2024 issue

President Biden walks with Jason Owens, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, in Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 29.
Jim Watson
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden walks with Jason Owens, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, in Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 29.

Updated February 29, 2024 at 5:57 PM ET

President Biden squared off against former President Donald Trump on Thursday on one of the issues expected to dominate the 2024 presidential election: immigration.

Both Biden and Trump visited two Texas border communities a few hundred miles apart that have been grappling with large numbers of migrants seeking asylum. Biden went to Brownsville, and Trump to Eagle Pass.

The trip was heavy on symbolism and short on new ideas to tackle the issue. Trump sought to paint a picture of uncontrolled crime and violence, which he blamed on Biden — while Biden sought to show he had agreed to a get-tough bill, blaming Trump and his Republican allies in Congress for blocking it.

It's only the second time during his presidency that Biden has been to the border. The trip comes as Biden goes on the offensive, trying to turn the tables on an issue that has been a liability for him.

Only 29% of respondents in a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist pollsaid they approve of the way Biden is handling immigration.

Former President Donald Trump talks with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott during a visit to the border at Eagle Pass, Texas on Feb. 29.
Eric Gay / AP
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AP
Former President Donald Trump talks with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott during a visit to the border at Eagle Pass, Texas on Feb. 29.

Biden is trying to flip the script on this issue

Biden met with Border Patrol agents and local leaders in Brownsville as he blamed House Republicans for failing to pass border funding and policy changes that the community has been seeking.

Biden has said Trump saw a political advantage for his party to block bipartisan legislation that would have tightened rules for asylum, expanded detention facilities and provided more money to hire more border agents. Had the legislation passed, it would have helped Biden show he was willing to get tough on the issue.

On Thursday, he urged Republicans to revive the package, and wrapped up his remarks by inviting Trump to work with him — something that is highly unlikely to happen in this election year.

"We can do it together. You know — and I know — it's the toughest, most efficient, most effective border security bill this country has ever seen. So instead of playing politics with the issue, why don't we just get together and get it done?" Biden said.

Concertina wire stretches through Shelby Park on Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas.
Eric Gay / AP
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AP
Concertina wire stretches through Shelby Park on Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Trump sees the border as a winning issue for him

Trump — the front-runner in the race to be the Republican nominee in November — announced his trip to the border first. His team said Biden had chased him to the border and said that strategy would backfire.

Trump went to Eagle Pass, a community where the state government has been trying to play a bigger role in enforcement, and highlighted recent crimes committed by migrants in major cities.

Trump blamed Biden for the death of a 22-year-old nursing student in Georgia. An undocumented Venezuelan immigrant has been arrested for the crime.

"I spoke to her parents yesterday. They're incredible people. They're devastated beyond belief. But she was beautiful, just so beautiful in so many ways. And brutally assaulted, horrifically beaten," Trump said.

Biden's campaign said Trump was fear mongering and said that violent crime had fallen during Biden's time in office — something the White House highlighted with police chiefs the day before the border visit.

"All he cares about is stirring up hate, stirring up division ... going even further than the extremism that we saw when he last held power," said Michael Tyler, a Biden spokesperson.

The stakes for both leaders are high

Polls show a majority of Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats on securing the border.

A new Monmouth University poll found that 53% of respondents support building a border wall, the first time a majority of Americans have backed the proposal since Trump launched his first presidential campaign.

As he did in his first run for office, Trump has made border security a central theme for 2024. He has promised to launch the largest domestic deportation operation in American history if elected.

A section of border fence in Brownsville, Texas, as seen on Nov. 8, 2023. Biden is visiting the community on Thursday to meet border patrol agents and local officials.
Valerie Gonzalez / AP
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AP
A section of border fence in Brownsville, Texas, as seen on Nov. 8, 2023. Biden is visiting the community on Thursday to meet border patrol agents and local officials.

Democrats saw an opening in a New York special election

But Democrats see an opportunity to counter a prevailing narrative that they are soft on border security while Republicans are viewed as hawkish.

House Democrat Tom Suozzi won his special election in New York earlier this month by campaigning hard on Republicans spoiling the bipartisan border bill.

Evan Roth Smith, a Democratic pollster for the political strategy group, Blueprint, said that showed it's possible for Democrats to paint Republicans as "unserious about border security."

He said it's not unlike the opportunity Democrats seized to effectively campaign against Republicans after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

"We now have proof-positive in this latest election that Republicans are out over their skis again on immigration. They don't know what to do," Roth Smith said. "And they've handed Democrats something they can run on for months or maybe years."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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