Susan Rice reflects on what's possible in a divided nation NPR's Steve Inskeep interviews Rice as she leaves her job as top domestic policy adviser to President Biden. Rice says that on divisive subjects, the best hope was often to take the least bad option.

Susan Rice, leaving the administration, talks of what's possible in a divided nation

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President Biden's domestic policy chief is ending her latest time in government. Susan Rice is about as prominent as a policy specialist can be. She was known as a foreign policy expert, President Obama's U.N. ambassador, national security adviser. Before that, she was a senior diplomat for President Clinton. In the Biden administration, Rice touched many issues at home. Her staff assembled a list of issues in which she played some part from a nursing home staffing standard to postpartum Medicaid coverage, a lot of work of the kind that doesn't dominate the news. But Rice also engaged on divisive issues, which we discussed when she came on the line.

I was thinking of something that you wrote once about your foreign policy period in government. You wrote once about Syria, every policy choice was terrible and you tried to find the least bad one. Now that you've done two years of domestic policy, did that formula apply to some domestic issues that confronted you?

SUSAN RICE: It did on some issues, indeed. For example, the challenge with respect to immigration or crime and gun violence. But while there are many intractable domestic issues, I dare say there may be more internationally.

INSKEEP: Although, it doesn't feel like that to Americans if you think about something like abortion or guns, which you mentioned. During your time, President Biden was able to sign bipartisan gun legislation. But it was very, very modest. There was an executive order that took other very modest steps. I would imagine that whatever you did was only a fraction of what you would have hoped to do.

RICE: Well, first of all, on the legislation that the president signed now almost a year ago, prompted by the horrific shooting in Uvalde and 10 days before that in Buffalo...


RICE: That legislation was the most significant gun safety legislation that we've had in nearly 30 years. Now, clearly, we wanted Congress to do more. And I think it's imperative that Congress pass an assault weapons ban again and ban these high-capacity magazines and ensure that background checks are universal, and that the gun lobby and the gun industry doesn't have this very unusual immunity from liability for what its products do. But the president has taken as much executive action as is possible, really, with the authorities that the president has. But Congress needs to do the remainder.

INSKEEP: What did you think you learned from more than two years of trying to shape a new immigration policy?

RICE: I learned that this is one of the toughest and most intractable issues that our country faces. And the fundamental problem here, too, Steve, is that our immigration laws have not been updated for decades. It's a system that is not built for the world in which we're living. We no longer have a challenge of simply, you know, people immigrating from Mexico or even from South America seeking employment or work opportunities here. We have people from around the world in the context of what is a global migration phenomenon, moving not just to our borders, but across borders all over the world. And the composition of the people who are coming here, the purposes for which they're coming are quite different than when our immigration laws were last updated. And we need comprehensive immigration reform.

INSKEEP: Is that part of the cause of the chaos of recent years at the border, that you would feel that you or any administration has a duty to enforce laws that, in your view, make no sense?

RICE: Well, we obviously have a duty to enforce our laws. But we also have a duty to update our laws to meet the challenges of the present. We are opening up lawful pathways for people who qualified to come to the United States through programs that Republican governors and Republican attorney generals and those in Congress are trying to overturn. So what we have found, Steve, that works - and we've seen it demonstrated in just the last couple of weeks - is that when you combine consequences for crossing between ports of entry without authorization, or crossing between ports illegally, with vastly expanded opportunities for people to come legally, the numbers of those who seek to cross irregularly goes way down. So for example, just in the last couple of weeks with the end of Title 42...


RICE: You put in place both consequence regime and a expanded set of legal pathways. And as a result, for the moment, the number of people who have sought to cross between our ports of entry without authorization has fallen by over 75% since Title 42 was lifted.

INSKEEP: You're correct that the surge of people that was widely anticipated did not happen. Let me ask about one other thing, though. President Biden, as he announced your departure, praised your work on this issue, said that you'd work to rebuild the broken system of care for unaccompanied minors. But as you probably know, The New York Times ran two long articles about unaccompanied minors who crossed the border and ended up working jobs while underage. Different government agencies seemed to disagree about who is responsible for taking care of them. How hard has it been to bring together all parts of the government to address a problem like that?

RICE: Well, it's been actually quite a challenge, but a collaborative effort. Let's remember where we started. Under the prior administration, if you were an unaccompanied child and came across the border, you were turned back. President Biden said, we are not going to do that. And we will reunite you or unite you with a parent, a legal guardian, a relative or another vetted sponsor. Then your case can be heard for asylum. That's what we have done. And as a result, we have been able to support and unite with families, you know, over 200,000 unaccompanied minors.

Now, what happens after they have been paired with their family member or sponsor is something we do care about. And we have been very concerned by reports that some of these children, and maybe some who came the prior administration, have been working in environments that are completely inappropriate for children. And the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor have set up new systems to be much more effective in ensuring that we are following these children and being responsive to them long after they've left the care of the Health and Human Services Department.

INSKEEP: I would imagine you'll continue talking with the president. But what's a final piece of advice you would give him on your way out the door?

RICE: Steve, you know, I wouldn't share it with you if I were - my private advice to the president. But I'm so grateful for the opportunity to serve this administration and serve the country again. I would just tell the president to keep on keeping on and get four more years.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Rice, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

RICE: Good to talk to you.


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