Biden pressures Trump to unblock migrant plan during dueling border visits

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By Steve Holland and Ted Hesson

BROWNSVILLE/EAGLE PASS, Texas (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Thursday called on Donald Trump to help unblock a plan languishing in Congress to cut migrant crossings as the pair took part in dueling visits to the border over a top issue ahead of November's election. Biden was in the town of Brownsville, Texas, across the Rio Grande river from Mexico, where he criticized Republicans for rejecting a bipartisan effort to toughen immigration rules after Trump told them not to pass it and give the president a win.

Biden and Trump, the Republican former president making his third bid for the White House, look set to face each other in what polls show will be a close election on Nov. 5 that looks set to be a deeply divisive rematch of the 2020 contest.

"Here's what I would say to Mr Trump: ... Instead of telling members of Congress to block this legislation, join me, or I'll join you, in telling the Congress to pass this bipartisan security bill," he said, while also warning he wanted people to know the cause of the inaction.

After being briefed by border patrol agents and others on the ground, Biden said they "desperately need more resources."

Trump also met with local officials as well as Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, at the Rio Grande before speaking at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, where border-crossers have posed a major problem for authorities in recent months.

"This is a Biden invasion over the past three years," Trump said, citing crimes committed by migrants and referring to the issue at the border as a "war", in the latest examples of the increasingly inflammatory language he has used in recent months.

He pledged to bring back policies in place during his term in office, including the "Remain in Mexico" plan that required some migrants to wait in Mexico for the outcome of their U.S. immigration cases.

Several hundred Trump supporters gathered on street corners in an area overlooking Shelby Park, an area that has been commandeered to block migrants crossing illegally, carrying “Make America Great Again” and “Never Surrender” flags.

Biden took office in 2021 promising to reverse the hardline immigration policies of Trump, who was in office from 2017 to early 2021, but has since toughened his own approach.

Under pressure from Republicans who accuse him of failing to control the border, Biden called on Congress last year to provide more enforcement funding and said he would "shut down the border" if given new authority to turn back migrants.

The White House is also considering using executive authority to deny more migrants asylum at the border, a source familiar with the matter has said.

Republicans have said Biden could better enforce existing laws and take new executive action without the need for Congress to approve it.

Biden was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who Republican lawmakers have narrowly voted to impeach over his handling of the border, a move unlikely to succeed in the Democratic-led Senate.

"This visit is focused on the work that we do, not the rhetoric of others," Mayorkas told reporters on Air Force One.

RISING CONCERN FOR VOTERS

A Reuters-Ipsos poll from Jan. 31 found rising concern among Americans about immigration, with 17% of respondents listing it as the most important problem facing the U.S. today, up sharply from 11% in December.

It was the top concern of Republican respondents, with 36% citing it as their main worry, above the 29% who cited the economy.

Trump was joined on his visit by Abbott, whose administration has been building a military "base camp" at Eagle Pass to deter migrants.

Eagle Pass remains a flashpoint in a heated partisan debate over border security even though the number of migrants caught crossing illegally into both there and Brownsville dropped sharply in January and February.

The number of migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally hit a monthly record of 250,000 in December but dropped by half in January, a trend U.S. officials attribute to increased Mexican enforcement and seasonal trends.

A federal judge in Texas on Thursday blocked the state's new law giving officials broad powers to arrest, prosecute and order the removal of people who illegally cross the border.

Abbott has deployed thousands of National Guard troops and laid concertina wire and river buoys to deter illegal immigration through a program called Operation Lone Star.

Some Democrats told Reuters they were turning toward Trump in Maverick County near the border, a rare Democratic stronghold in the majority Republican state of Texas.

Wendy Riojas, 25, who came to downtown Eagle Pass to see Trump visiting her hometown, voted for Biden in 2020 but does not know who she will support in November.

"You feel sometimes for people who are in situations like that who are dying to get over here," she said. "But I understand more of the Republican view of ... how about we focus on ourselves first."

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Richard Cowan and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Steve Holland and Costas Pitas; Editing by Deepa Babington and Stephen Coates)