How the Biden-Trump Border Visits Revealed a Deeper Divide

Even the participants in President Biden and Donald J. Trump’s overlapping visits to Texas on Thursday seemed to sense there was something remarkable about their near encounter along the southern border.

Rarely do the current and former commanders in chief arrive on the same scene on the same day to present such sharply different approaches to an issue as intractable as immigration. Even rarer still was the reality that the two men are most likely hurtling toward a rematch in November.

“Today is a day of extraordinary contrast,” declared Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who had appeared alongside Mr. Trump.

But the dueling border events were about something even more fundamental than immigration policy. They spoke to the competing visions of power and presidency that are at stake in 2024 — of autocracy and the value of democracy itself.

Perhaps the most surprising facet of the split screen was that Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden agreed on some of the basic contours of the border problem: that the current situation, with migrant crossings setting a new monthly record of nearly 250,000 in December, is unsustainable.

“It’s long past time to act,” Mr. Biden said.

Where they disagreed, at least in part, was politically in how to go about fixing it. And their disparate answers represent a test of the American appetite for the systemic messiness of democracy: Mr. Biden’s intrinsic and institutional belief in legislating versus the “Day 1” promises of dictatorial enactment under Mr. Trump.

Mr. Biden says he would close the border, if only he could. Mr. Trump says Mr. Biden could close the border, if only he would.

“A very dangerous border — we’re going to take care of it,” Mr. Trump pledged on the tarmac upon his Texas arrival.

For his part, Mr. Biden made the case on Thursday that his hands had been tied by the failure of a bipartisan border package that had been negotiated on Capitol Hill. The legislation would have increased border spending, made asylum claims harder and stiffened fentanyl screening. It unraveled when Mr. Trump demanded its defeat.

Mr. Biden, who spent more than 30 years as a senator, has for decades held out bipartisan deal-making as an ideal in and of itself. “I didn’t get everything I wanted in that compromise bipartisan bill, but neither did anybody else,” Mr. Biden said in Brownsville, Texas. “Compromise is part of the process. That’s how democracy works.”

Then he added one more thought: “That’s how it’s supposed to work.”

Immigration as an issue has broadly favored Republicans in recent years and party strategists see it as a top vulnerability for Democrats in 2024. But Democrats hope Republicans killing the border bill could divide up some of the blame.

In a surprise flourish toward the end of his remarks, the president offered an olive branch to Mr. Trump himself.

“Join me,” Mr. Biden urged, in calling on the two of them to work together to get the legislation passed. “Or I’ll join you.”

Minutes earlier and hundreds of miles away in Eagle Pass, Texas, Mr. Trump — whose 2016 convention speech accepting the Republican nomination was defined by the phrase “I alone can fix it” — had outlined a very different view of exercising power. After passing razor wire and military Humvees, and after shaking hands with Texas National Guard members in fatigues, Mr. Trump cast himself as a battle-tested leader ready to fend off an “invasion” by hordes of “fighting-age men” who look like “warriors.”

“This is like a war,” Mr. Trump said, expressing a willingness to use something akin to wartime powers.

He said Mr. Biden had “blood” on his hands, citing in particular the recent killing of Laken Riley, a student in Georgia, where a migrant was arrested. He repeated that the country was suffering a “Biden migrant crime” wave.

Representative Robert Garcia, a California Democrat, said the former president was using dehumanizing rhetoric. “This immigrant crime narrative is racist,” Mr. Garcia said in a call with reporters before Mr. Trump’s event.

Mr. Trump appeared with Mr. Abbott, who has begun building an operating base in Eagle Pass for up to 2,300 soldiers to curb illegal crossings from Mexico, a move that has caused a clash with federal officials. A federal court on Thursday had blocked a Texas law to allow the state and local police to arrest migrants.

The thing about Mr. Trump’s lightning-rod pledge to be a “Day 1” dictator was that it was not just a blanket promise of authoritarian rule. It was grounded in a specific policy. He said he wanted to close the border — the limits of governmental red tape be damned.

Back in December, the Fox News host Sean Hannity had offered Mr. Trump the opportunity to wriggle out of the remark during a town hall. Instead, Mr. Trump embraced it fully.

“He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’” Mr. Trump said as he re-enacted the exchange with Mr. Hannity for dramatic effect. “I said, ‘No, no, no, other than Day 1. We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.’”

By any means necessary has long been a Trump mantra. He was accused of unconstitutionality in 2015 when he called for a Muslim ban. As president, he enacted a narrower version focused on seven countries that included those with Muslim majorities.

In a possible second term, Mr. Trump has made clear that he wants to be surrounded by executors and enablers. His allies are eyeing a more aggressive brand of lawyer who can work around any legal limits or barriers that may be put up by what he decries as the “deep state.”

“People don’t want to hear anything anymore — they just want the masses to stop coming,” Jerry Patterson, a Republican who is a former Texas land commissioner, said in an interview.

Mr. Patterson, who said proudly he was often criticized by the right for supporting guest-worker programs, said the situation now was “truly a crisis,” even if Thursday’s visits wouldn’t amount to any change on the ground.

He predicted the election of Mr. Trump would change things — not because of any policy but because of the perception among potential migrants that he would blockade or deport them.

“Perception,” he said, “is more important than reality.”

Republicans of late have broadly insisted that Mr. Biden can solve some of the border troubles by reimposing some of Mr. Trump’s reversed executive policies. Mr. Biden announced no new actions on Thursday but is considering an executive action that could prevent people who cross illegally from claiming asylum. His State of the Union speech is next week.

Speaker Mike Johnson, the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill, called on Thursday for Mr. Biden to act on his own, an unusual level of deference from a legislative leader to executive powers.

“If President Biden truly cared to acknowledge the national security crisis at the southern border, he would sit down at his desk and sign executive orders,” Mr. Johnson wrote on X.

Refusing to concede has become the new normal for congressional Republicans, said Michael Podhorzer, the former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the labor federation. The collapsed immigration deal, he added, was just the latest episode of Republican intransigence, dating back to voting en masse against the economic recovery bill in the first days of former President Barack Obama’s first term.

“No problem is serious enough to compromise to solve,” Mr. Podhorzer said of the G.O.P. philosophy. “The best answer is just to put us in charge.”

Michael Gold contributed reporting.

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