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As lawmakers negotiate border policy, GOP candidates make immigration the focus

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. Senate has postponed its winter break so lawmakers can try to reach a deal on immigration.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Now, Republican presidential candidates have been talking a lot about immigration, and President Biden is facing a decision about how much to compromise on as congressional Republicans demand tighter border security as a condition for aid to Ukraine and Israel.

MARTIN: Here to talk about the latest on that is NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Danielle, good morning.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So just help us understand what's going on between Biden and Congress.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. So like you said at the top, the White House has been seeking more aid for Ukraine and Israel. And Republicans have said that they will approve that money but only if they get tighter border policy. So not just resources at the border, for example, but substantial changes to make immigration policy much tighter. So as a result, the White House has said it's willing to give up some ground on immigration in order to get that funding. For example, Republicans want to make it harder for immigrants to get asylum, so that could be part of a deal. But again, we are in early stages here. Details are sketchy. But for context here, if there were a deal on this, it could be big. As one immigration expert told me over the weekend, this could be the biggest immigration policy change since the late '90s. But it's unclear what the timing would look like. The White House has said the need for money for Ukraine is urgent. But then again, Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told NBC's "Meet The Press" this weekend that there won't be a deal before the New Year, that things are just slow going.

MARTIN: So, you know, this might be helpful for context, too, because you've been reporting on the race for the Republican presidential nomination. What are those candidates saying about immigration?

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, immigration is absolutely huge among the Republican candidates. The candidates and voters alike talk about immigration a lot, about fears about immigration, about threats that they think it poses, and in particular, the candidates use immigration to hit President Biden. So, of course, this means that immigration will probably be important to Biden in 2024 because the Republican nominee will attack him on it no matter what. And depending on how much Biden compromises here - again, if this deal happens - he could also anger progressives.

MARTIN: So back to the Republican side - the former president, Donald Trump, is still the candidate to beat in the GOP primary. And, you know, attacking immigrants has always been - at least some immigrants - has always been part of his political message.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

MARTIN: What's he been saying recently?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, immigration is central to his message, as usual. This weekend in New Hampshire, in a campaign speech, in fact, Trump said that immigrants are, quote, "poisoning the blood of the United States," and that is language that echoes language Adolf Hitler once used, as the Biden campaign was quick to point out. And this is not the first time that Trump has used this phrase. He used it on a right-wing talk show earlier this year. Furthermore, last month, he also called left-leaning Americans vermin in a speech. That's another echo of Nazi language. Now, I reached out to the Trump campaign asking why he repeated that poisoning-the-blood phrase. I have not heard a response. But to zoom out here, let's remember that in his 2015 campaign announcement speech, like you pointed out there, Michel, he used inflammatory language against immigrants then, as well. He linked them to violent crime, for example. And rather than alienating voters, it endeared many to him. And that campaign showed the GOP just how much appetite there is among their base for hard-line immigration policy. So what we're seeing on Capitol Hill, in part, is a party that learned from Trump just how motivating immigration is for voters.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Danielle, thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.