Democratic Activists Say Biden Has Failed To Deliver On Immigration Promises : The NPR Politics Podcast Activists say the president has made little substantive progress on overhauling the U.S. immigration system despite pledging as a candidate to work toward a more humane and open immigration system.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and national desk correspondent Joel Rose.

Email the show at
Join the NPR Politics Podcast Facebook Group.
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Newsletter.
Find and support your local public radio station.

Democratic Activists Say Biden Has Failed To Deliver On Immigration Promises

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SARAH: Hi. This is Sarah (ph), a California native living in Cambridge, Mass. It is 8 degrees outside right now, and I will not be leaving my house today.



SARAH: This episode was recorded at...

KHALID: 2:08 p.m. on Monday, January 31.

SARAH: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but my friends will still be very, very sick of me complaining about how freaking cold it is here. OK. Here's the show.


KHALID: There are many things I miss about living in New England. That is not one of them.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: It's definitely not on the same boat. And it's really something when someone from New England is complaining about the cold.

KHALID: (Laughter) Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

KHALID: Back when Joe Biden was running for president, he railed against Donald Trump's hardline immigration policies. And the first day he stepped into the Oval Office, Biden decided to reverse some of his predecessor's most controversial immigration positions. He signed an executive order to halt construction of the southern border wall. He lifted a travel ban that targeted a number of predominantly Muslim countries. And he unveiled a plan to put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. But a year later, that legislation has gone nowhere. And many of the other immigration reforms Democrats wanted have also not materialized. So, to put it mildly, Democratic activists are frustrated.

Today on the show, we're going to dive into all of this. What exactly happened to Joe Biden's immigration agenda? And we are joined by a special guest. Joel Rose covers immigration for the network. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

KHALID: So let's start with this - sort of a basic question. But what were some of the concrete things that immigration reform advocates thought that they might have seen at this point from President Biden?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, I'd say that, you know, advocates were not naive. You know, they didn't expect President Biden to walk in the door and pass comprehensive reform and give all the 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. But they also didn't expect what many feel like him giving up and just handing everything over to Congress for them to do those things. You know, they wanted a bigger fight. They wanted more Oval Office meetings. They wanted, you know, Biden out there championing like he has other issues - the Oval Office, jumping on a plane and going out and really advocating for these things that, you know, he pledged to do in the campaign.

And another thing is - you know, I'm sure Joel will talk about this as well. It's the - you know, they're also struck that some of Trump's tough policies are still there, including Title 42, which is a pandemic order that allows the administration to turn away most migrants, and another one, Remain in Mexico, which requires that migrants coming here seeking asylum must wait, or most must wait, in Mexico until their court cases are completed.

ROSE: Yeah. Franco, I think that's right. I mean, I think advocates were expecting some changes on the southern border, right? The administration came in talking about big plans to build an orderly and humane system at the southern border. And, you know, that really hasn't happened. There has been this big surge in the number of migrants coming to the border, apprehended after crossing the border. And when they get here, they - you know, they are finding that these Trump-era restrictions on asylum are still in place.

With Remain in Mexico, I mean, you know, that was - to be fair, the Biden administration tried to end Remain in Mexico and did for a while. In fact, there was a wind down where they allowed some of the people who'd been forced to stay in Mexico into the U.S. to make their asylum cases. But then a federal judge in Texas put a stop to that, you know, because of a lawsuit brought by Texas and another state. And, you know, now we're seeing Remain in Mexico brought back under that court order. So, yeah, you just have these major Trump policies still in place at the southern border, and I think that is not something people would have expected a year ago.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. And just to add on Remain in Mexico, you're absolutely right that, you know, the court forced the administration to bring it back. But one thing that really has advocates that I've been speaking to angry is that the Biden administration expanded the program to include other nations inside the Western Hemisphere.

KHALID: You know, earlier, Franco, you mentioned that President Biden has ceded some of the immigration policy changes to Congress, and immigration reform is not a budgetary thing. But we should explain, you know, what that means is that Democrats can't use the same tricks to avoid the filibuster and Republican opposition that they've been trying to use for, say, something like Biden's Build Back Better agenda. That all being said, I'm not even convinced that there would necessarily be democratic unanimity (laughter), you know, agreement on what to do about immigration reform. But I guess my question is, even if this has all hit a wall in Congress, isn't some of this technically within the sphere of what the executive branch could do?

ORDOÑEZ: That's a really, really tough issue. Certainly, the advocates want the administration to push more on that for Biden to use his executive powers. But really, that's - you know, other leaders have done that. President Obama obviously used his executive powers to implement DACA, which protected young migrants brought to the country as children from deportation. Now a judge has ruled against that.

Anything that the administration, the Biden administration, would try to do by executive action, you can rest assured that Republican attorney generals in Texas and other states are going to file court papers on. And we've seen that already. And it also shows how, you know, how executive powers, they just do not have the staying power because they are subject to those type of court fights and that the - really, the only way to make lasting change or perhaps the best way to make lasting change is through legislation in Congress. But, you know, there's just no appetite.

ROSE: It's true that there are limits to the executive branch's power on immigration, but, you know, some of these things pretty clearly are within the Biden administration's power. And immigrant advocates are disappointed with even some of the things that they have done through their own executive powers. Like, for example, one of the biggest victories that the Biden administration would point to on immigration in the first year are these new priorities for immigration enforcement. And these are essentially detailed rules for who immigration authorities can arrest and deport.

And the administration has really shifted those rules to focus much more tightly on threats to public safety and on national security. And that is a big deal that - you know, a big shift from the previous administration. And it's one that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has been touting a lot. Here he is speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors just a few weeks ago.


ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We will not dedicate our limited resources to apprehend individuals who have been here in this country for many years, who have been contributing members of our communities. And that is a very important principle.


ROSE: But my reporting has found that immigration lawyers in some parts of the country say that the execution on that guidance is not living up to their expectations. ICE arrests are way down, I should say, and detention numbers are relatively low, but immigration lawyers were hoping for more. Many are hoping to get what is known as prosecutorial discretion for immigrants who are already in removal proceedings, essentially asking the government to drop these deportation cases or put them on hold. And immigration lawyers say that is not happening, at least not on the scale that they were expecting. And, you know, so some of them see this as one more broken promise on immigration by the Biden administration.

KHALID: Franco, what are you hearing from activists that you speak with? How are they grading the administration so far?

ORDOÑEZ: Most agree that the Biden administration has followed through in its promise to at least implement a more humane policy. They're very pleased that construction of the wall has ended. They're pleased that the travel ban for, you know, those Muslim-majority countries was lifted. And they're very pleased that the rhetoric of the Trump administration has been toned down. That said, they also feel - many still feel a bit let down. I spoke with Yair Casianes (ph), who is an undocumented immigrant and a community organizer. You know, he talked to me about his high hopes for Biden.

YAIR CASIANES: In the beginning, like, we really had him, like, at this pedestal. Like, he's going to do so much for us. And then just little things like, no reform coming out, nothing being pushed, no little steps like the license or the permits - no anything really.

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, you can just hear, like, it's a big feeling of being let down. And the feelings really range. I mean, he feels, you know, let down. Some advocacy groups feel, frankly, used. I spoke with the executive director of one group who was, you know, really angry and argued that Democrats need to stop thinking of young people like them as basically an ATM for votes that they can cash in without having to work for it.

KHALID: All right. Well, we are going to talk a lot more about the politics of immigration policy in a moment, but first, we're going to take a quick break.

And we're back. And, Franco, you just traveled last week with Vice President Kamala Harris to Honduras. That's one of the countries in Central America that's at the heart of this administration's hope to prevent people from migrating to the United States in the first place. So explain to us what she was doing there and what this administration's thinking is.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. The vice president was in Honduras to attend the inauguration of Xiomara Castro. She's the country's first female president. And she's someone that is saying all the kinds of things that the Biden administration wants to hear about fighting corruption, about boosting the economy, helping education, improving public health. So for the Biden administration, this is - they see this as a real opportunity to kind of work on this - these issues with someone who at least is saying the things that they want to hear and sounding like they really want to work on these issues because the other two countries in that region have kind of been turning a little bit more to the authoritarian side.

But, you know, I will say that, you know, Honduras has its own set of problems, some big ones. So this is kind of risky for the administration. I mean, they're putting some credibility on the line working with the government when, you know, there's real questions - whether, you know, Xiomara Castro, as good as the intentions are, whether or not she will be able to follow through or even have the means to do so.

ROSE: Yeah, we have just seen huge numbers of migrants fleeing Honduras in the last year and, you know, last summer, when Border Patrol was encountering more than 200,000 migrants a month at the border - a large percentage of them were from Honduras. So to me, it would make sense that the administration would be focused on trying to intervene and trying to figure out what the root causes are there because we just saw a huge spike last year.

KHALID: I have a question for both of you that I want to end on here, and that is that we saw a lot of changes in the way that President Biden speaks about immigration. But it sounds like what both of you are saying is that we have not seen a wholesale transformation in policy. And is that because Democrats have made a calculation that that's not a winning strategy, that's not a winning thing to do specifically, as it's - you know, we're inching closer and closer to a midterm election year?

ROSE: Well, I will say, like, we've done some polling on this with our friends at Ipsos on the question of where people rank immigration as an issue. And it consistently ranks much higher among Republican voters than it does among Democrats. And in the last polling we did with Ipsos back in September of last year, I just looked back - immigration was, like, the No. 3 issue. It was a top issue for more than 30% of Republicans, you know, so it's clearly a big deal to that audience. But on the other side, Democrats just don't rank immigration as a top issue. It has fallen out of the top 10 in our last round of polling in terms of what Democrats consider the biggest issues facing the country. So there's just a big divide there.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, I think you can see you can see and hear it in the president when he talks about these issues. Now, the issue did not come up in the last press conference. But in the press conference back in April, you'll remember that immigration was, you know, perhaps the biggest-talked-about issue of that press conference.

And President Biden was very concerned about kind of what Joel was talking about - that push from the right. He was very defensive, saying that most people, most adults, were being sent back to their home countries, and that was through the use of Title 42. I mean, I think you could definitely hear from the president that he does feel vulnerable from the right on issue. And all the, you know, political pundits and the people in the know that I speak to certainly feel that, you know, some of these policy decisions, there is some politics going on. And, you know, look. It's the president of the United States. It's - you know, politics informs everything.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. Thank you, Joel, as always, for coming on the show. We really appreciate it.

ROSE: Oh, you're welcome.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

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.