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Policy Strategists On How Biden Can Gain Traction On Immigration Reform

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back to the story that captured so much of our attention last week, the situation in Del Rio, Texas. Or rather, we're going to go back to one of the issues at the heart of it, which is immigration. You'll remember that thousands of people were camped out under a bridge near the Texas-Mexico border hoping to request asylum in the U.S. The encampment has since been cleared by authorities, but not before some ugly scenes. And the Biden administration's handling of the whole situation has been heavily criticized by all sides - local officials, conservatives, progressives, advocates for migrants and for law enforcement tasked with controlling the situation. On the broader issue of addressing immigration, the president did put forward ambitious plans soon after taking office. But nine months into his term, his administration seems to be struggling both to get traction on a reform plan and to find a better way than his predecessor to address the steady stream of migrants that continue to arrive at the U.S. border.

To discuss all this, we've called two guests we've turn to before to talk about immigration. Theresa Cardinal Brown worked on immigration policy under two presidents - George W. Bush and Barack Obama. She's now director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Theresa Cardinal Brown, welcome back.

THERESA CARDINAL BROWN: I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: We're also joined again by Chuck Rocha, who is a former senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and a political strategist. Chuck Rocha, welcome back to you as well.

CHUCK ROCHA: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you because many people called what happened at the border outrageous and - including now the president, who said the same. And he said that there will be consequences. But when you take a step back, can I ask you, how do you look at this whole episode? What does it say to you?

ROCHA: It just puts such a lens on a failed immigration policy, failed immigration rhetoric that we've just been seeing over and over and over. I've been doing campaigns for 31 years. And this issue of immigration has been at the center of the left, of the right, in the middle. We talk about immigration. We talk about it some more. Nothing ever seems to happen.

And then this week, again, much like it was under Donald Trump but in a different way, the blanket was pulled back. And you got to see the failed system, the failed system that doesn't allow, somehow, a timely process for folks who want to come to our country for a better life, to pay taxes, to be part of the fabric of our country, a way to do that seamlessly, where it doesn't put everybody at risk and where things don't go to hell in a handbasket to - for other terms and you see this disgraceful thing that happened on the border.

MARTIN: Well, Theresa Cardinal Brown, I'm going to go to you. Same question - when you take a step back and look at this whole episode, what strikes you?

CARDINAL BROWN: Sequential administrations have failed to recognize, essentially, the change in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. We are still trying to manage migration that is basically of people who are so desperate, fleeing for their lives, seeking protection. And no level of deterrence that the United States is frankly willing to do is going to really affect that. And yet we're still trying to manage that the way we did when it was Mexicans who were trying to come in and work for a while, for a few dollars more and send money home and then go back and forth.

This is a completely different set of circumstances, and we're still trying to address it the same way through deterrence. But as we've seen from President Obama, through President Trump and now through President Biden, deterrence has decreasing value the more desperate the people are that are trying to come. And each president has seen the limits of what deterrence can do. President Obama had his kids-in-cages moment. President Trump had his moment when he was separating families and kids. And now President Biden has Border Patrol on horseback. We need to change the process at the border. We need to recognize this is different.

MARTIN: You know, Chuck just said this, that when it comes to immigration and the border, it just seems that this government lurches from crisis to crisis. The Biden administration has pointed out that despite his tough talk about the border, roughly the same numbers of people were crossing during the Trump administration. And now Biden's critics are saying, despite his very different talk, his administration is using some of the same tactics. They deported about 2,000 people to Haiti, for example, who, from what we can tell, didn't really get a chance to make their asylum claim. So, Theresa, I'm going to ask you, in the near term, you know, is there something - you're saying that these methods just don't work. They don't change anything. So is there something right now that the administration could be doing different?

CARDINAL BROWN: Well, there are a few things that they need to be doing different. First and foremost is they need to understand that continuing to tell people not to come and that the border is closed is just not working. And it sounds tone deaf because it just sounds like they're shouting into the wind, frankly. Migrants are coming because they're desperate. And regardless of what they're - the government is saying, that's not what they're hearing. It's like a long game of telephone tag. By the time the news reaches the migrants' ears of what's happening at the border, they may be halfway to the border already.

And the Biden administration is trying to have it both ways by saying we want a safe, orderly and humane process, and just a month ago, by extending TPS for Haitians already in the country, indicated they understand how bad it is in Haiti. And at the same time, now they're saying, you can't come. The border's closed. That just doesn't - I mean, even to me, that doesn't resonate as, you know, being consistent.

And then lastly, Biden really does need to speed up trying to fix the asylum system here in the United States. When people arrive, they have a right to claim asylum. They may not get it, but they have a right to ask for it and be heard. And if he really wants to change the situation at the border, he's got to invest in that process right away. Until that changes, it's going to continue to draw people here.

MARTIN: Chuck, final thought for you. We're a little more than a year away from midterm elections. Do you see immigration being a factor that changes this dynamic that we keep talking about here, that the same thing over and over and over again, crisis to crisis to crisis, nothing changing?

ROCHA: The Democratic majority in the House and the Senate flows through, runs through districts with large portions of Latinos. Recent polling shows that 68% of all Latinos know somebody that's undocumented. So it may not be the most important issue to a Latino voter, but it's an emotional connection that we make with Latino voters to remind them of where they came from.

And in House districts and Senate districts all across the country - Florida, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Nevada - all of these places have elections that are going to determine who's going to control the House and the Senate. And guess what? There's lots of Latinos, like me.

There's been turmoil for a long time that's - drove people from country to country. My great-grandfather in Mexico, during the time of Pancho Villa, escaped from Mexico, got into Texas, started a family. Many generations later, his great-grandson sits in Washington, D.C. And I pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state taxes every single year because that's what happens with immigration. You immigrate here. You become part of the society. You pay your taxes. You become part of the community. And that's all, really, Latinos want, to Theresa's point, a legal path to come to a country that they are dying to get into.

MARTIN: That was Chuck Rocha. He's a policy consultant, a former senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. You also heard from Theresa Cardinal Brown. She is the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Thank you both so much for talking to us once again.

CARDINAL BROWN: Thank you.

ROCHA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.