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GOP Presidential Candidates Tour America’s Turbulent and Fatal Border, Inspired by Trump

Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina … and the lettuce-growing fields of Yuma, Arizona?

The nation’s southern border has joined the early primary states as must-visits for Republican presidential contenders seeking to court the party’s voters.

Sen. Tim Scott was the latest to make the pilgrimage, visiting Yuma to get a first-hand look at one of the hotspots on President Biden’s border. He held a roundtable, where he heard the county sheriff describe the chaos of people streaming over and heard from a Spanish-speaking mother who shared the story of her 16-year-old son whose life was claimed by an overdose of fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid that’s become the major money-maker for smuggling cartels.

The South Carolina senator promised he would finish the border wall, add more Border Patrol agents and take the fight to the cartels.

“I was at the border of 2019 and the thing that’s changed the most is Joe Biden coming into office has allowed for more than 6 million folks across our border illegally, and that’s equally as unfortunate as that 70,000 Americans have lost their lives to fentanyl,” Mr. Scott said.

His visit follows those by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, two other 2024 hopefuls who made stops at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, and former Vice President Mike Pence, who visited Arizona last year to talk border security.

They come to gather intelligence about the situation on the ground, which can often get lost in translation between agents on the front lines and the politicians and news accounts in Washington.

And they invariably pay homage to the work of former President Donald Trump, who left office with the least chaotic border in modern history — albeit one that immigration activists decried as inhumane.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said the border became a must-visit location for Republicans a decade ago, after the Senate’s last major foray into immigration policy with a bill to grant an amnesty to most illegal immigrants.

That legislation cleared the Senate but never saw action in the House. But it did galvanize GOP voters, Mr. Judd said.

“That’s when the public really started to take notice of, ‘Hey, there is this major, major problem and the only thing that politicians talk about to solve the problem is to legalize these people that violate our laws,'” Mr. Judd said. “It really, really upset the public. I mean it really upset them.”

Then came Mr. Trump, who descended on the escalator to announce his campaign in 2015 with a complaint about “rapists” sneaking across the border, a vision of “a great wall” to seal it off — and a promise to have Mexico pay for it.

Like so much else about Mr. Trump, his stance became gospel for GOP voters — and the caravans of politicians to the border began.

Republican members of Congress show up to complain about Mr. Biden’s handling of the situation. So do some Democrats. Back in Washington, they proudly tick off their number of visits during hearings.

That’s just as true for the presidential hopefuls, who show up to collect the kinds of stories they can deploy on the campaign trail to show they understand the suffering of border communities under Mr. Biden.

For Mr. Scott, that meant hearing Yuma Sheriff Leon N. Wilmot talk about the 140 different nationalities of people trying to sneak into the U.S. that Border Patrol agents say they’ve encountered.

And the mother whose teenage son died of an overdose.

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