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El Paso officials push back against Gov. Abbott’s claim that city was ‘sanitized’ before Biden trip

Migrants who recently crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso have set up make shift sleeping quarters on the streets of the border city.
Julian Aguilar
The Texas Newsroom
Migrants who recently crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso have set up make shift sleeping quarters on the streets of the border city.

Officials said the clear streets during Biden’s visit were due to regular cleanings by city crews and fewer migrants crossing into El Paso.

El Paso leaders pushed back against Gov. Greg Abbott’s assertion this week that the city had been “sanitized” and migrant camps cleaned up to shield President Biden from the reality of the situation on the border.

Biden on Sunday visited El Paso in his first-ever trip to the border as president. He met with officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, city and county leaders and U.S. Reps. U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso and Vicente González, D-McAllen.

Abbott wasn’t along for the duration of the president’s visit but did meet with Biden after Air Force One landed at the El Paso International Airport. The governor hand-delivered a letter accusing Biden of abandoning his duty to secure the border. In it he said that the president wasn’t going to see the reality of the situation on the ground.

“Even the city you visit has been sanitized of the migrant camps which had overrun downtown El Paso because your Administration wants to shield you from the chaos that Texans experience on a daily basis,” he said. “This chaos is the direct result of your failure to enforce the immigration laws that Congress enacted.”

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said the clean-up operation wasn’t about the president’s visit but instead part of the routine duties city sanitation services began after migrants started entering El Paso in the thousands last month.

“The areas in which the migrants have gathered have been routinely cleaned by the City as a matter of practice. If we hadn’t been doing that we would have created a health hazard,” Lesser said in a statement. “The difference wasn’t the President’s visit; the difference was the decrease in numbers of individuals crossing. We’d seen days with crossings as high as 2,500 a day, and we are now seeing 500. The decrease in numbers leads to less crowded areas which optimizes our cleaning efforts."

A City of El Paso dashboard reflects that during the first week of January, fewer than 1,000 migrants were released onto the streets. That’s compared to more than 10,000 the week of Dec. 12 and about 5,900 the following week.

But that didn’t stop Abbott from appearing on FOX News Sunday before he met with Biden, accusing he president of aiding migrants.

“Biden is there today to look at a sanitized El Paso so that he can do all he can to help and aid the illegal immigrants as opposed to stopping them from coming into the country,” he said in a news clip he posted on Twitter. (As Abbott spoke, a video clip showed migrants in Eagle Pass, Texas, not El Paso. Eagle Pass is about a seven-hour drive from El Paso.)

After Biden’s visit, Escobar said during a news conference that there were also fewer migrants on the streets of downtown El Paso because non-governmental organizations had been successful in convincing some who feared deportation to seek shelter provided by non-profit groups. She also said U.S. Border Patrol had conducted some enforcement operations in the area, which also led to a decrease in how many people were camped out on the streets.

She added that she and other leaders shared photos with the president of the situation on the ground before his visit.

“It’s those two things that have been happening in tandem [and] completely unrelated to the president’s visit. And I just want to underscore … that the president has seen all the photos we all have seen. The president has seen all the videos we have seen,” she said. “The mayor delivered another packet with some of those similar photos. And we both witnessed him looking at them. There is no way any of this could have been kept secret from the leader of the free world.”

Weeks before the president’s visit, city crews were regularly seen in areas of downtown where migrants with no place to go set up camps. But even during the president’s visit, coverage from national outlets like CNN showed that hundreds of migrants were still living on the streets of El Paso, not more than a few miles from a port of entry where Biden made his first stop.

The migrants told reporters they hoped the president would meet with them, but he chose not to, which drew criticism from some groups that have also rebuked the president for keeping in place some of former President Trump’s hardline immigration policies. The criticism grew after the Department of Homeland Security announced last week that though it will allow tens of thousands of migrants to apply for humanitarian parole under a new immigration plan, it will continue to deport most under Title 42, a rule that allows for the immediate expulsion of migrants without the chance to apply for asylum.

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.