McALLEN, Texas — House Republicans have traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border numerous times. Not until Donald Trump agreed to join them did they get the focus they wanted for their push to undercut President Joe Biden’s immigration agenda.
Visiting the border with the former president is part of Republicans’ long-running effort to spotlight a spike in migration that they’re betting they can use to help win back the House next year. But the trek with Trump also underscores how closely the party is hugging him, embracing his policies and his popularity with the GOP base even as he mounts a revenge push against incumbent Republicans who’ve crossed him.
“Republicans visited the border repeatedly this year,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) said in an interview after arriving in Texas. But, Banks added, Trump’s announcement of his border trek gave the House GOP a level of “attention we could not get before.”
That attention landed on Banks, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, and roughly two dozen Republicans who joined the trip he organized to view border crossings firsthand. The GOP lawmakers walked a path frequently used by migrants crossing the border in nearby La Joya, Texas, on Tuesday night — a new experience for most of them.
The Republicans briefly accompanied migrants traveling along a gravel road after crossing the Rio Grande. Some were children joined by their mothers, while others traveled alone.
At one point, Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Mary Miller (R-Ill.) exited their vehicles to walk with the migrants, asking them questions that were translated by a Spanish-speaking member of the media who was covering the trip. This group said they were from Guatemala and planned to surrender themselves to border patrol agents.
The Republicans are expected to cite their emotional moment as they hammer the Biden administration for policies they say have escalated a dangerous environment at the border, including empowering drug cartels and putting unaccompanied migrant children at risk. But Democrats aren’t shrinking from that fight, pushing back hard against a Trump immigration legacy widely derided for its separation of migrant families at the border.
“If Republicans were serious about addressing issues at the border, they’d join President Biden and Democrats in working to clean up the mess they left behind, create a safe and humane immigration system, and finally pass immigration reform,” Democratic National Committee Rapid Response Director Ammar Moussa said in a statement. “Anything less is political theater.”
This week’s GOP border trip was already in the works when Vice President Kamala Harris announced that she would be visiting El Paso, Texas, to observe the situation. Republicans had repeatedly attacked her for failing to visit the border after assuming a leadership role on immigration for Biden’s White House, and they responded to her trip by contending that a visit to El Paso sidesteps the more serious problems visible in the McAllen area.
Biden and Harris “swore they were going to protect and defend the Constitution and obey the law and enforce the law,” Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) told reporters after the GOP group arrived Tuesday night. “And yet they have absolutely willfully opened our border up, encouraging people to migrate up here and take an extremely dangerous trek.”
Several migrant children taking that trek crossed paths with the Republicans on Tuesday night, clutching small backpacks and carrying papers explaining the reason for their travel. The children sat or slept on the wet grass, waiting to be processed and loaded onto a bus.
One child, an 8-year-old who lay on the ground, explained to lawmakers through an interpreter that he had crossed the border on his own with the hopes of meeting up with his mother and brother who were already in the U.S.
Miller looked visibly upset as she listened to the boy’s story.
“Since the administration is saying that they are unable to control this, then by definition, they’ve owned up to an invasion,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. “They have been unable to to meet their Constitutional requirement.”
Issa was one of multiple outspoken pro-Trump conservatives who joined the Texas trip organized by Banks, whose caucus is the largest in the House GOP.
“A lot of members asked if they could join us” after Trump accepted Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R-Texas) invitation to the border, Banks said of fellow House Republicans. “We didn’t widely publicize it.”
The former president attended a briefing with Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday afternoon prior to his scheduled tour of border barriers.
Trump is using his trip to Texas both to serve as a defense of his term in the White House and a dry run for future campaign themes. During the briefing he touted the symbolic and functional utility of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and tied China to illegal drugs being smuggled into the country.
At times Trump veered off topic into his false assertions that the presidency was stolen from him and laments about New York City election officials bungling the Democratic mayoral primary tally, in addition to criticizing Biden for unwinding many Trump-era border and immigration strategies.
“We had all these great policies going, and they were all ended,” Trump said. “It’s almost like they were ended because I did it.”
Trump yoked the issues together as evidence that the U.S. is in decline under Democratic governance, arguing that “if you don’t have good elections and if you don’t have a strong border, you don’t have a country.”
Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.