How Visiting the U.S. Border Became a Potent Form of Political Theater

Vice President Kamala Harris went to the U.S.-Mexico border soon after she and President Biden took office, even though she had characterized such visits as empty politics just weeks before. President Barack Obama also toured the border during his time in the White House, though he came to see the trips as little more than photo ops.

Donald J. Trump used the border when he was president to galvanize support for his anti-immigration policies, even signing his name on his “big, beautiful wall” with a Sharpie pen.

As the immigration debate grows increasingly polarized, a trip along the 2,000-mile frontier has become a compulsory bit of political theater for leaders who want to show they care about immigration. The imagery at the border — the wall, the Border Patrol officers, the crowded detention facilities — serves as a potent backdrop for drawing attention to the crisis or, increasingly, for seizing on the issue to attack political opponents.

On Thursday, both of those factors will be at play when President Biden and Mr. Trump make dueling trips to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mr. Trump will travel to Eagle Pass, Texas, where he will speak about crimes committed by migrants and blame Mr. Biden for surging crossings at the border. Mr. Biden, more than 300 miles away in Brownsville, plans to speak with border agents and call out House Republicans who took their cue from Mr. Trump and thwarted a bipartisan border bill that would have cracked down on unlawful migration.

“It’s a relatively new phenomenon, where you go and make a big deal of the border at the border,” said Tevi Troy, a presidential historian. “As long as this remains an issue, we’re going to have presidents who either go to make a political point or if they don’t go, are pressured to do so.”

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