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Democrats are leaning into the border fight ahead of Biden's visit to their state


On Thursday, President Biden travels to Texas to visit the U.S. border with Mexico. Now, former President Trump will be at the border, too, but hundreds of miles away. Texas Democrats hope Biden's visit means a turning point for their party's border message, which has become one of the most pressing political fights across the country. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: During a festive Democratic rally at an early voting site in Laredo, Texas, couple Francisco Enriquez and Lupita Garcia recalled a very unique wedding ceremony. Enriquez, a U.S. citizen, and Garcia, a Mexican resident, say in their native Spanish that they married on a nearby international crossing bridge more than five years ago.

FRANCISCO ENRIQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

LUPITA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

GRISALES: He says they lived apart for five years until Garcia recently gained legal U.S. residency - this, Enriquez says, as he saw migrants cross illegally all the time.

ENRIQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GRISALES: Enriquez says he supports a lot of Democratic policies and he won't vote for former President Trump. He likes his local Democrats, but he's not as excited about their leaders. He wishes they would do more on the border. A few blocks away, Texas Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar says he happens to agree.

HENRY CUELLAR: Why are we ceding the border security debate to Republicans? We did that for years.

GRISALES: That's Cuellar at his Laredo office. He says the high-profile transfer of migrants by plane and bus from Texas to other states and cities changed everything.

CUELLAR: I don't think a lot of the other people saw it till they started seeing it in Chicago, D.C. and New York and other places. All of a sudden, it's like, oh, it's real.

GARCIA: It has always been real for Cuellar. He served 10 terms despite challenges from Republicans, in part because he says he leaned in to the border fight.

CUELLAR: I think it's important for Democrats to push back on the narrative. Hey. Border security - we're going to do this. We're going to do this. They need to step into it. I stepped into it, and it works.

GRISALES: When Cuellar says it works, he points to one of the latest examples, Democrat Tom Suozzi, who ran in a special election for a New York congressional seat. He noted Suozzi leaned in to the border debate and won. Cuellar says the playbook for Democrats' border success also needs to include better top-down messaging in the party. Other border Democrats, like Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, bristle at the confusing border czar role given to Vice President Kamala Harris three years ago.

VICENTE GONZALEZ: I don't understand that. I still don't understand that. We never saw her here. We never talked about it. She never met with us, never talked to me.

GRISALES: For years, Gonzalez, a four-term member who represents the Texas Valley in the state's southeast corner, made it his mission to convince Biden to visit.

GONZALEZ: I think it's important for him to visit the border and visit a region where he's well-loved and he has a lot of support. And if you drive down the expressway, you see all kinds of massive infrastructure that's developing right now that all came from funding under his programs.

GRISALES: That's Gonzalez just before he casts his early vote at City Hall in Weslaco, Texas, and just before he got his wish. This week Biden finally announced his first visit as president to Gonzalez's district. It marks Biden's second stop to the Texas-Mexico border since he was elected, following the first in January 2023 to El Paso.

GONZALEZ: And I think it's important for him to come out here and not only here but across the country and take credit for some of the great things that they've accomplished.

GRISALES: House Democrats hope they can make progress here by backing Michelle Vallejo in her bid to unseat GOP Congresswoman Monica De La Cruz in a Texas border district. It's an uphill battle, but during a recent visit to a McAllen coffee shop, Vallejo says it doesn't have to be that way if Democrats engage in the border fight.

MICHELLE VALLEJO: For us, it's important that we have a functioning border. And we need to eliminate all of the chaos because this is our home.

GRISALES: Democrats may face a firewall of Republican districts, low voter turnout and complaints of GOP gerrymandering in Texas, but they hope their party's border shift could fuel a national blue tide come November. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, along the Texas border.


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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.