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GOP governors back at Texas border to keep pressure on Biden over migrant crossings

EAGLE PASS, Texas — As more than a dozen Republican governors gathered at the Texas border on Sunday, Kyle Willis was across the river in Mexico, deliberating his next move to enter the US.

The 23-year-old Jamaican, who said he left his country after facing attacks and discrimination because of his sexuality, had followed the path of a historic number of migrants over the past two years, attempting to cross the Rio Grande at the border town of Eagle Pass. But he waded back across the river after spending hours in soaked clothes and failing to convince Texas National Guard soldiers behind a barbed wire fence to let him through.

“It’s not just something they say to keep people from coming in. It is really true,” says Willis, who is currently staying in a shelter in Piedras Negras.

His experience would be seen as a victory for Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who returned to Eagle Pass on Sunday surrounded by GOP governors who have cheered his extraordinary confrontation with President Joe Biden’s administration over immigration enforcement. But the decline in border crossings is part of a complex mix of developments along the U.S. border, including increased enforcement in Mexico. Meanwhile, migrants move further down the river and cross elsewhere.

The issue was also at the forefront in Washington, where senators rushed Sunday to release a long-awaited bill linking border enforcement policies to war aid to Ukraine.

Abbott said he would continue to expand operations along the Texas border, but did not provide details. For nearly a month, Texas has restricted U.S. Border Patrol access to an area along the river known as Shelby Park, accusing the Biden administration of not being strict enough on crossings.

“We are here to send a loud and clear message that we are working together to ensure that we can preserve our constitutional guarantee that states can defend themselves against any kind of imminent danger,” Abbott said.

The record number of border crossings is a political liability for President Joe Biden and an issue Republicans are eager to bring to voters’ attention in an election year. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last week pledged to send more National Guard troops to Texas, and other governors are also considering new deployments.

Although DeSantis was not present in Eagle Pass on Sunday, Abbott was joined by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkanas and Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, among others.

On Eagle Pass, Texas has been embroiled in a power struggle with the Biden administration over the past month after the state began denying entry to U.S. Border Patrol agents at Shelby Park.

Overall, border crossings have decreased in recent weeks along the entire U.S. border, including areas without such a heavy security presence.

Tucson, Arizona, the busiest of nine Border Patrol sectors on the Mexican border, had 13,800 apprehensions in the weeklong period ending Friday. That’s down 29% from a peak of 19,400 in the week ending December 22, said sector head John Modlin.

Just a day after Biden “expressed his appreciation for Mexico’s operational support and for taking concrete steps to deter irregular migration” in a phone call with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s immigration authorities said on Sunday that they had 71 arrivals in the past week immigrants had saved. – 22 of them minors – stranded in two groups on sandbanks of the Rio Grande, between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. They came from Mexico, Central America, Ecuador and Peru.

A Honduran woman and her 1-year-old baby were also rescued from the water and the emergency team also found three bodies, apparently migrants who died trying to cross into the US.

Biden, now looking increasingly like former President Donald Trump, is pushing Congress to impose asylum restrictions that would have been unthinkable when he took office. Immigration remains a top concern for voters in the 2024 elections: An AP-NORC poll earlier this month found that voters expressing concerns about immigration rose to 35% from 27% last year.

The arrival of GOP governors in Eagle Pass caps off a weekend that has unwittingly kept the small border town of about 30,000 in the spotlight. Hundreds protesting Biden’s immigration policies held a “Take Back Our Border” rally on the outskirts of the city on Saturday, where vendors sold Donald Trump-inspired MAGA hats and Trump flags.

The number of crossings in Eagle Pass has recently dropped to a few hundred per day. Texas closed access to federal agents at Shelby Park after the number of crossings dropped sharply in late December. Mike Banks, who was appointed by Abbott last year to oversee Texas border operations, described the park as a “magnet” for migrants trying to enter the country.

“So we took away that appeal,” Banks said.

Mexico has stepped up immigration efforts, including adding more checkpoints and sending people from its northern border to southern Mexico. The country has also deported some Venezuelan migrants back home.

Melissa Ruiz, 30, arrived at the Piedras Negras shelter, just across the river from Eagle Pass, with her four children. The Honduran mother said gang members at home had tried to recruit her 15-year-old son, her eldest, prompting her to reluctantly flee.

Ruiz said she was little aware of the tighter security on the Texas side because she had heard that many people had crossed into the U.S. since she arrived at the shelter. She said the main deterrent for her is the cold weather and the increased flow of the river after the recent rains. River drownings are tragically common.

“What they say about suffering so much on this road is true,” Ruiz said.

___ Associated Press reporters Maria Verza in Mexico City and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.