Congressman Henry Cuellar says Biden's rule to restrict asylum is 'reasonable' Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, spoke with NPR about a Biden administration proposal to limit asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. He says the number of arriving migrants is overwhelming local officials.

Congressman Henry Cuellar says Biden's rule to restrict asylum is 'reasonable'

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


We're going to start tonight by taking a look at a new rule the Biden administration is proposing that will make it harder to claim asylum in the U.S. The new rule will presume that migrants are ineligible for asylum if they cross illegally, don't ask for protection in countries they pass through or notify U.S. authorities of their intention to seek asylum through a mobile app. Although the rule is still just a proposal, subject to public comment, and is supposed to expire after two years, it's still a marked change from the country's traditional policy toward those who say they're fleeing persecution.

In the past, asylum-seekers have been able to present themselves for asylum, no matter how they got to the U.S. And it has infuriated pro-migrant advocates, who say it is as inhumane as the previous administration's and unlawful. And they say they'll challenge it in court. Meanwhile, those who favor more restrictive immigration measures say it won't go far enough to stop the record number of people who've been coming across the southern border in recent months, straining the resources of the government and nonprofits alike.

Immigration is one of this country's most complicated and divisive issues, so we wanted to hear from someone who often sees himself in the middle of these competing views. So we've called Congressman Henry Cuellar. He's a Democrat from Texas who represents the state's 28th Congressional District, which includes parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. And he's been critical of how both Democrats and Republicans have dealt with this issue. He supports President Biden's rule change, and he says Democrats and Republicans need to do more to understand how the migrant crisis is affecting people living along the southern border.

HENRY CUELLAR: If somebody is 1,500 miles away, it is so easy for people to say, oh, yeah, let everybody in. But if you're a mayor, you're a county judge, you're a land owner, you're somebody down here at the border, and you see this day after day after day, then I think you're going to have a very different perspective than somebody who's 1,500 miles away. So, you know, when I speak, I think I'm speaking for my community, where they're saying, look, you know, we just want to have order. So it is not a ban. It is just if you get invited, for example, to dinner at 6 o'clock, don't come in through the back door. Don't open up windows to go in. Don't show up at 3 o'clock in the morning. Just do it in a orderly process. We will respect that.

MARTIN: Here's where the advocates would say your analogy breaks down, which is that people aren't being invited to dinner. They're fleeing for their lives, and there's a fundamental difference than that. And if you are fleeing from your life, you might, you know, knock on the door at 3 o'clock in the morning. So that's the argument here. What do you say to that?

CUELLAR: Well, of course. If somebody comes to your house and knocks at 3 o'clock in the morning and they're asking for help, of course you're going to open up the door. Of course you're going to help them. And this rule provides that. In other words, they're saying, you come in through a port of entry or through the app, and do it in an orderly process. If you come in between a port of entry, you don't ask for asylum in another country - and keep in mind, Michel, is the United States the only place that you can ask for asylum?

MARTIN: If they wanted to seek asylum in Mexico - right? - they could seek asylum in Mexico. But if people want to come to the United States, I mean, doesn't immigration law - longstanding immigration law - allow people to seek refuge from persecution wherever they want to seek it?

CUELLAR: What I'm saying is, yes, they can come in. And under the proposed rule, there is an exception where if you don't - if you feel that there's immediate danger to you - rape, assault, human trafficking or whatever the case - there is an exception where you can just come in. But otherwise, we're going to ask you to follow a orderly process.

MARTIN: One of the arguments is that the politics of this are wrong for the Biden administration, that it alienates a key part of their base, and it isn't going to do anything to appeal to people who don't support them already. It's not going to do anything to appeal to Republicans, and it just alienates the pro-immigration Democrats. And I'm asking you, what is your take on that?

CUELLAR: If a person thinks that the immigration activists are the only part of the Democratic base, then I think they're wrong. I mean, yeah, they're important. I agree. They're a very important group. But like I've said, when we talk about the issues down here at the border, I've always said immigration activists are one, and I think the White House listened to them too long for one year without taking consideration to the men and women down here that have so many families down here. And over 50% of the Border Patrol agents are Hispanic.

And then the most important one is, who's listening to the border communities? When a rule like this comes out, the media automatically goes to the immigration activists. Who calls the border mayor in Webb County or in Starr County or in El Paso? Or who calls the county judges or the mayors or the sheriffs down here? Usually, they don't. The first instinct by the media - and I'm not criticizing. I'm just saying this because, you know, the immigration activists do a good job at getting themselves in front of the media - they go to that. But they're leaving out communities down here at the border.

MARTIN: I should have mentioned that part of the administration's proposal is to lift the limits for people applying under temporary protected status from certain countries like Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, who can then apply for temporary protected status if they have someone in the United States who can help sort of support them. Do you support that?

CUELLAR: You know, you can return some people that don't qualify for credible fear or asylum easier to a lot of countries. But there are countries where our relationships are not good - Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti. You know, it's a different situation there, but it's included in there. So if the countries are not going to take them, then I think we need to figure out how we can try to help those folks but still screen every person that comes in to make sure that there are no reasons for keeping them out.

MARTIN: That is Congressman Henry Cuellar. He's a Democrat from Texas, and his district, the 28th, includes parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. We reached him in his Laredo office. Congressman Cuellar, thanks so much for your time.

CUELLAR: Thank you and God bless. We'll see you soon.

Copyright © 2023 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.