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After Title 42, Biden faces a new era of immigration


At 11:59 p.m. Eastern time last Thursday, immigration policy changed dramatically. The controversial immigration program known as Title 42 came to an end. Former President Donald Trump had invoked this policy in the midst of the pandemic.


DONALD TRUMP: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has decided to exercise its authority under the Title 42 of the U.S. code to give customers a border protection, the tools it needs to prevent the transmission of the virus.

KHALID: The virus being COVID-19. When Trump announced this plan, it was exploding across the U.S. And while the public health emergency was the official justification, Trump implied this was something he'd wanted to do anyways.


TRUMP: We've had this problem for decades - for decades. You know the story. But now it's - with the national emergencies and all of the other things that we've declared, we can actually do something about it. We're taking a very strong hold of that.

KHALID: And Title 42 did fundamentally change the way border agents dealt with people crossing into the U.S. Rather than detaining migrants or releasing them into the United States, they could process and expel them in minutes. And they did just that more than 2.8 million times since the beginning of the pandemic. And in the days and weeks leading up to last Thursday night, concern about the impact at the border swirled.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The influx of migrants is only expected to grow by the time Title 42 ends on Thursday. Officials...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And you can see behind me, it is quite a sight. There are so many people here already, and they are waiting to be processed.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Border officials estimate up to 65,000 migrants may be in northern Mexico waiting to cross.


KHALID: But when the policy expired Thursday night, the situation at the border was much less dramatic than was anticipated. My colleague Joel Rose has been reporting on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. He covers immigration for NPR, and so I asked him what this scene has been like after Title 42 expired.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's calm, and it's been orderly here in El Paso and kind of, really, up and down the border. And I know that does not make for great copy or exciting cable news chyrons, right? But, like, that's what we are seeing. But we do know that, you know, there are likely still tens of thousands of migrants in northern Mexico who - there's this sort of pent-up demand, right? I mean, they haven't had a chance to seek asylum over the past few years, and they may still very well be waiting to come and cross the border to try to do that. So it's really too soon to say - right? - if we're going to see that big influx that people have been waiting for. We definitely haven't seen it yet, though.

KHALID: You know, there's a message that the Biden administration has been sending, I will say rather clearly, which is do not come. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas directed, I would say, a rather clear message to migrants that was released across social media.


ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Do not believe the lies of smugglers. People who do not use available legal pathways to enter the U.S. now face tougher consequences.

KHALID: Is that a message that is landing with migrants?

ROSE: You know, with some of the migrants we've talked to, it really is. They do seem to know that Title 42 is over, and they do seem to know that that means that that exposes them to new consequences if they cross the border illegally. Now, I'm not saying that all the migrants in Mexico know that, but I have been struck that a lot of the people we've talked to in Juarez have gotten that message. And also, some of the folks we've met on the street in El Paso who've already crossed over - like, a lot of them told us that they wanted to get in ahead of Title 42 because they felt that whatever was coming next would be worse for them.

KHALID: I mean, what you're describing, Joel, is really that this story is not just about this moment, right? And even as you're describing a situation, I was really struck by - that it's relatively calm there at the U.S.-Mexico border. I am still interested in understanding what this might mean in the weeks, the months to come. Is the Biden administration prepared to deal with an increase of people at the border? Because this is not just a story about this week.

ROSE: They say they are. I mean, they've rolled out a bunch of new policies which are kind of a combination of carrots and sticks. On the carrot side, you have incentives to use these new legal pathways, what they're calling humanitarian parole, family reunification - basically legal ways for people to come from their home countries without using a smuggler, without crossing the border illegally. And on the stick side, they've put in place a sharp new limit on asylum at the border that says if you've crossed the border illegally after going through Mexico or another country, you are presumed to be ineligible for asylum. And that's a big change from the way things worked before.

So they've got these policies in place that are how they're going to try to manage the border. But already, both ends of that, the carrot and the stick, are being litigated. They're being challenged in court. You know, a group of states led by Texas is challenging the parole program. The ACLU and other immigrant advocates immediately challenged the new asylum rule the moment it went into effect. And there's a pretty strong chance that they will find receptive judges, you know, to block some of these programs, if not both of them.

And then the question is, you know, how does it play out in court? What does the administration do if those tools are taken away? - because those are the main new things that the administration wants to do to manage what are historically high levels of migration. And those are kind of the best tools that they have been able to come up with. You know, they say, you know, only Congress can really create a durable solution here. But, I mean, I think you and I both know that's not coming anytime soon. So can these tools work? I don't know. But the administration wants to try them, and it may not even get the chance.

KHALID: That's NPR's Joel Rose speaking to us from El Paso, Texas.

We also wanted to get a sense of what this policy change means for the president from a political perspective. So I asked my colleague, Franco Ordoñez to join us. Like me, he covers the White House for NPR. So, Franco, how has the Biden administration been preparing for this moment?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, this has been an issue since the beginning of the administration. Obviously, the president came into office promising to bring big changes, bring back humanity to this very fraught political issue, unroll or unravel many of the policies that former President Donald Trump did. But there was also a lot of politics involved because he knew - the president knew, the White House knew that they had to follow through with some of the promises that the White House made, that the president made on the campaign about immigration, about bringing some humanity - at the same time, continuing to manage the border.

How they did that or the process they did - day one, they started unraveling many of those policies. He stopped Trump's signature border wall. He stopped the travel ban for majority-Muslim countries. Obviously, he did a lot of work on family separation and reuniting families. But for a long time, you know, many of the progressives, those on the left, were concerned that he wasn't doing enough. And part of that was for political reasons. He had to show that he could also maintain and manage control of the border.

You will remember as well as I did his first press conference in March of 2021, where some of the strongest, hardest-hitting questions were about the problems on the border. And he defended himself very vigorously. He defended the border very vigorously, saying that the vast majority of migrants coming are being sent back.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: ...Sent back, are being sent back. Thousands, tens of thousands of people who are over 18 years of age and single people, one at a time coming, have been sent back, sent home.

ORDOÑEZ: And that was a strong message, a strong political message to those in the country who are concerned about the border, but also a push back on the right and all that rhetoric that he is, quote, you know, an "open-borders president."

KHALID: You know, Franco, this administration seems to be on a drumbeat, and it has been for a long time, trying to tell migrants not to come. There was this famous moment in the summer of 2021, when Vice President Harris was in Guatemala, when she said, you know, very plainly, do not come.


VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border. There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur.

KHALID: It's startling how similar this sounds to what we just heard the secretary of Homeland Security say the other day. And I have often wondered if this message is really being directed at migrants or if it's directed at a domestic political audience to present that they are in control of the situation.

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I think that's very fair, and I think it's very real and very honest. I mean, this messaging - Kamala Harris then, of the president in his first press conference or even, you know, when Secretary Mayorkas - Alejandro Mayorkas of DHS - is talking about the border is not open - those are also directed at the domestic audience. Let's not forget, Asma, that there is a presidential election coming up not too far from now. He just announced that he was running for reelection.

KHALID: Biden, yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: So - and this is one of the biggest issues that Republicans want to use to undercut President Biden's competency. This is an issue that they feel they have ammunition on. And that's because polls show, you know, as a vulnerability for President Biden.

KHALID: Franco, so how does this White House navigate the immigration debate in the months to come, especially facing criticism, you know, from folks on the left but also folks on the right?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it's very, very difficult. I mean, you were talking with Joel about all the potential litigation that's coming at President Biden, coming from the left and the right. I mean, it's very clear that he is getting attacks from both sides - from the advocacy world that, as you said, they say that these policies look too much like the former president's policies, and from the right, who are accusing the president of, you know, having too much of a porous border.

It's a very delicate, fine-line balance. And this is where he pulls out all his moderate Joe Biden ways to try to stay - kind of balance in the middle. I mean, I think the White House would tell you that he is trying to reach those middle America voters - you know, kind of that sweet spot in the middle. And politically, that is the area that he's kind of needs to focus on. And that's because his vulnerabilities politically are more on the right than the left.

KHALID: That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez speaking to us from Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.