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How Biden plans to persuade migrants not to risk coming to the U.S.-Mexico border

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden's administration wants to stop migrants from traveling overland to the U.S.-Mexico border. Their new plan attempts to shift the incentives. Yesterday, the president said the U.S. will make it harder for people to get in if they show up at the border and make it easier for some to get in if they stay in their home countries and apply from there. Thirty thousand people per month will be admitted that way. These new rules apply to people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas joins us now.

Mr. Secretary, welcome to the program.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Good morning, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Both parts of this policy that I just mentioned seemed aimed at the same one goal, telling people not to come and cross the border illegally. Why is that your bottom line?

MAYORKAS: Steve, there's a fundamental policy underlying our operational measures, and that is the following - that we want people who qualify to come to the United States in a lawful, safe and orderly way. And we do not want them to take the dangerous journey to place their lives, their life savings in the hands of smuggling organizations that are ruthless. We want to cut out the smuggling organizations. We have seen too much death, too much tragedy and too much trauma. And so we're building lawful pathways.

INSKEEP: I would imagine you're also thinking about what people see as chaos at the border, which is a bipartisan feeling in places like El Paso, Texas, for example.

MAYORKAS: You know, Steve, the challenge of migration that we are experiencing on our southern border is not exclusive to our southern border, and it is not exclusive to the United States. It is a migration challenge that is gripping our entire hemisphere. I have traveled to multiple countries in the hemisphere, and we are seeing an unprecedented level of displacement - 2.4 million Venezuelans in Colombia. We are seeing the population of Costa Rica become increasingly Nicaraguan. I was in Ecuador, in Colombia just two weeks ago to speak of this challenge that other countries are facing.

And this is why President Biden led the region in the Summit of the Americas last year and really pronounced a seminal agreement, the LA Declaration on Migration, to bring together the countries to address what is a united challenge. And we need to have a united response. With respect to...

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask the question then. We've got...

MAYORKAS: Yes.

INSKEEP: If you'll forgive me, Mr. Secretary, we've got these disastrous conditions for many people in multiple countries, which is what you're pointing to. But you want them not to leave the country and to stay and to ask for entry from the United - entry to the United States from there. Have you done enough here that it's going to change the motivations of people in distress?

MAYORKAS: You know, what we have seen, Steve, generally, is that people are willing to wait if there is a safe and orderly process for them to arrive in the United States. They do not want to place their lives in the hands of smugglers unless desperation compels them to do so, unless there are not alternative avenues. And that is why we are providing those alternative avenues. And what we've - what we announced yesterday builds on the tremendously successful program that we developed for Venezuelan nationals. We saw Venezuelan encounters in between the ports of entry drop 90% when we provided safe and lawful and orderly alternative pathways.

Fundamentally, though, Steve - fundamentally, the challenges that we are dealing with, a immigration system that everyone agrees is broken - it is why President Biden, on his very first day in office, sent to Congress a comprehensive piece of legislation to reform a system that has not been updated for decades. Unfortunately...

INSKEEP: Right. Well, let's talk...

MAYORKAS: ...Congress has not acted yet.

INSKEEP: They don't even have the House organized at this point. Let me ask about the the other part of this, though. You are going to turn away more people at the border without a hearing, without parole into the country. That is part of this, is being a little harsher at the border. I'd like to ask if you can do that legally. If someone reaches the United States and asks for asylum, isn't the U.S. legally required to let them in and consider their case rather than turn them back, as this policy suggests?

MAYORKAS: Steve, you are you are referring to the public health authority that is commonly known as Title 42, the statutory provision. We are actually obligated under a court order issued in Louisiana...

INSKEEP: To turn people away. But in some cases...

MAYORKAS: ...To continue to apply it.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry - just because time is short, Mr. Secretary. I'm so sorry. But in this case, you're adding extra authority under a different law - Title 8 - that will turn more people away. Is that correct?

MAYORKAS: Steve, it is correct. And the reason is very straightforward, that we want to incentivize people to take the safe and orderly pathways and disincentivize them to take the dangerous and the treacherous path of placing their lives in the hands of smugglers.

INSKEEP: Should...

MAYORKAS: We have got to close the smuggling organizations out of this.

INSKEEP: In about 10 seconds - should we expect to see the flow of people at the border decrease in months to come?

MAYORKAS: That is certainly our plan, and we've been working on it since September of 2021.

INSKEEP: Alejandro Mayorkas is the secretary of Homeland Security. Mr. Secretary, it's a long discussion. I'm pleased to have a small part of it here. I look forward to talking with you again.

MAYORKAS: As do I. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's bring in NPR's Joel Rose now, who covers immigration.

Joel, good morning to you.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What stands out to you and what we just heard?

ROSE: Well, it's striking that the administration is framing this in terms of cutting out the smuggling organizations and protecting migrants, helping migrants reach the U.S. in a safe and orderly way, you know, and not emphasizing so much, as you tried to push him on, the parts of the plan that will make it harder for migrants to seek asylum, you know, including sharp new restrictions on who can apply, the expansion of Title 42, which the secretary mentioned there. These are pandemic border restrictions first put in place by the Trump administration.

You know, and it's important to note that the new legal pathway that they're establishing here is fairly narrow. Applicants will have to have a financial sponsor inside the U.S. They'll have to apply from abroad. Not everyone is going to qualify. Thirty thousand people a month sounds like a lot, but it's - you know, it's really only a small fraction of the number of folks who - from these sending countries that have been seeking protection in recent months.

INSKEEP: The administration has been criticized from the right for being too lenient, criticized from the left for being too harsh. How are people responding to this announcement now?

ROSE: Exactly as you just described. I mean, immigrant advocates are not happy. There's a little bit of praise for these new legal pathways, but overall, the reaction has been negative. Advocates are accusing the Biden administration of doubling down on Trump-era policies. And immigration restrictionists don't like this plan either. They are calling it a mass amnesty because it would allow these 30,000 migrants a month into the country illegally. And they don't seem convinced that these tougher restrictions will do much to get the crossing numbers down. From their perspective, it's too little, too late.

INSKEEP: Joel, thanks for the perspective. Really appreciate it.

ROSE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joel Rose.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAMER'S "VIOLET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.