PHARR, Texas (AP) — Republican lawmakers traveled to Texas to cheer former President Donald Trump as he paid a visit to the southern border Wednesday and hammered the Biden administration for its immigration policies amid a decades-high spike in border crossings.
Trump, who was joined by more than two dozen House members, also continued to spread lies about the 2020 election as he participated in a border briefing and visited the wall he championed in a trip that was strikingly similar to the many he'd taken here while president.
“Biden is destroying our country. And it all started with a fake election," Trump railed as he stood at the border, an American flag hoisted by a crane waving above him. Trump has persisted in falsely claiming he won in November, even though state and federal election officials, his own attorney general and numerous judges have said there is no evidence of the mass voter fraud he alleges.
Coming fresh off his first rally since leaving the White House, the visit underscored the extent to which Republicans, both nationally and in the states, continue to embrace Trump as the leader of their party. And it demonstrated anew how much the GOP has taken up Trump’s signature issue of immigration as the party looks to recapture control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections.
Trump was invited to South Texas by the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, who is up for reelection next year and is considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate. After facing criticism for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abbott has taken up Trump's immigration mantle, vowing to continue building the southern border wall that the Biden administration has suspended.
At the wall, Abbott heaped praise on Trump, hailing him as “the man who did more to secure the border than anybody and any president ever has."
Pointing to the unfinished border wall rising behind him, Abbott called on Biden to resume construction. “This is Biden’s fault because President Biden is not continuing what President Trump began," he said. Democrats have long criticized the wall as a symbolic waste of money that does nothing to address the root causes of migration.
The trip came as Trump was facing new and unprecedented legal pressure in New York. His company and longtime finance chief have been indicted on charges stemming from a New York investigation into the former president’s business dealings, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. The charges remain sealed but are expected to be revealed Thursday.
Trump did not respond to shouted questions about the charges or the deadly Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, when his supporters stormed the building to try to stop the certification of Democrat Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election. Indeed, some in the audience of House Republicans and GOP staffers booed the reporter who asked if Trump planned to apologize for what happened that day.
While Biden has enjoyed high approval ratings in the first months of his presidency, immigration has consistently been a weak spot. A May Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found more than half of Americans — 54% — disapprove of his handling of the issue. And a recent Quinnipiac University poll of Texas voters found 64% disapprove of the way Biden is handling the situation at the border; 29% approved.
Trump has hammered the issue in nearly every appearance he has made since leaving office. And on Wednesday, he assailed the Biden administration for reversing the policies he’d enacted.
“All they had to do was leave it alone," he bemoaned.
Along with the two dozen House members, who skipped a vote in Washington on the creation of a new panel to investigate the events on Jan. 6, Trump was joined in Texas by a cadre of former administration officials, including his acting homeland security secretary and acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Their presence, along with Trump's familiar grievances, gave the event the feel of a journey back in time for the former president.
“We have a sick country, in many ways. It’s sick on elections, and it’s sick at the border," he said as he received a briefing on border security in Weslaco. He later insisted that, were he still president, the wall would have been completed in two months, even though more than 200 miles remained to be built under now-canceled contracts.
“It would have been painted, not sitting there rotting and rusting. It would have been perfecto. It was all set,” he said.
Democrats representing the state denounced the visit and their characterization of the border;
“Let’s make one thing clear: the narrative of a violent and insecure border region is blatantly false,” said Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela in a statement. “The border is not a war zone, and the wall Abbott and Trump are trying to get Texans to pay for is not only a waste of their hard-earned money but also an un-American symbol of hatred that separates and intimidates our communities, harms our wildlife, and encroaches on landowner rights.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 180,000 encounters on the Mexican border in May, the most since March 2000, sparking Republican attacks. Those numbers were boosted by a pandemic-related ban on seeking legal asylum that encouraged migrants to make repeated attempts since getting caught carries no legal consequences.
Nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children were picked up along the border in March 2021, by far the highest month on record. While the number of families and children traveling without their parents has dropped sharply since March and April, encounters with single adults have remained high.
Biden's administration has abandoned many of Trump’s hard-line policies, most notably one that forced asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court. Biden has said he is working to build a “humane” asylum system, but details have been vague.
Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Biden tapped to lead his administration’s response to the migrant increase, traveled to Texas amid growing pressure from Republicans and some in her party to travel to the border. Trump took credit for forcing her hand.
In recent weeks, Abbott has rolled out get-tough plans and rhetoric on immigration not seen before in Texas. He's promised to continue building Trump’s wall on his own and announced plans to shift $250 million in state dollars to new barrier and finance more through crowdsourcing. Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, have also asked governors to send additional law enforcement staff and resources to the border. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem — two other potential Republican 2024 White House contenders — are among those who have obliged.
Still, Abbott’s characterization of the Texas border as a growing emergency is disputed by local officials in the most populous counties along the border, including Hidalgo.
The counties have rejected Abbott’s efforts to use the current number of border crossings as justification to issue sweeping disaster declarations, which are usually reserved for hurricanes and fires. But other Texas counties that are hundreds of miles from the border and controlled by Republicans are signing on, including Galveston County, which on Tuesday said it was willing to give more than $6 million in federal recovery funds to help the governor build new border barrier.
Associated Press writers Paul Weber and Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.