The Migrant Crisis On The Border And The Hill : The NPR Politics Podcast The stream of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border hit record numbers at the end of 2023. The stream of illegal border crossing has slowed, but could a lack of agreement on immigration policy issues be a factor in a partial government shutdown next week?

This episode: political correspondent Ashley Lopez, congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh, and immigration correspondent Jasmine Garsd.

Our producers are Casey Morell & Kelli Wessinger. Our editor is Erica Morrison. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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The Migrant Crisis On The Border And The Hill

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CHARLOTTE: Hi, this is Charlotte (ph)...

NATE: And Nate (ph)...

CHARLOTTE: ...From San Francisco, Calif.

NATE: We're enjoying a pint at the highest pub in Africa. Tomorrow we'll tackle Sani Pass as we drive across the border from Lesotho into South Africa. This podcast was recorded at...

ASHLEY LOPEZ, HOST:

1:37 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, January 11, 2024.

CHARLOTTE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but hopefully we will have successfully navigated the harrowing 4,300-foot descent into South Africa to leave this beautiful kingdom in the sky and continue our honeymoon.

CHARLOTTE AND NATE: Cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

LOPEZ: Oh, wow.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Sounds like an awesome trip.

LOPEZ: A very active honeymoon. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

WALSH: And I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

LOPEZ: And today we're joined by NPR's immigration reporter Jasmine Garsd. Jasmine, welcome back to the podcast.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Hi. So glad to be back.

LOPEZ: Migrants are crossing the southwest border in high numbers. In December, border authorities reported 225,000 encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. And House Republicans are blaming the Biden administration for the influx of migrants and targeting Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Wednesday they began the process to impeach the secretary. Before we get to all that, though, Jasmine, remind us who is crossing the border right now, and why is this happening at such high volumes?

GARSD: Sure. I've been covering immigration for several years, and I've never seen anything quite like this at the border.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

GARSD: And what I'm talking about is, like, a really diverse group of people. Over the last two years or so, I've met people, you know, from Ukraine, from Russia, who are fleeing that conflict; a lot of people - a lot of people - from Venezuela, who are trying to get away from a very repressive government and poverty; a ton of people from Ecuador who, as we saw in very recent news, is being really run over by violent gangs - which leads to the next point, which is I don't think you can talk about this big influx of migration without talking about the fact that there was a historic rise in the last year of displaced people worldwide. That's according to the U.N. The White House has also signaled that. And it's really, really tangible when you get to the border - that displacement.

LOPEZ: I know this has changed over time, but, like, can you tell us what happens to these migrants now once they actually reach the border?

GARSD: I mean, it really depends on who we're talking about. Really, the centerpiece of the Biden administration's immigration policy has been this kind of carrot-stick approach, where, you know, it encourages people to apply through legal pathways. You also get plenty of people who are coming in through non-legal pathways. And I have to say, there's a lot of misinformation there. I think a lot of people are crossing through, you know, via organized crime. And they are being told if you cross, just turn yourself over to Border Patrol and you'll get asylum, which isn't how it works. So many people who I've spoken to in the last year, what happens is, you know, they either turn themselves in or they get apprehended. And they're given an NTA, a notice to appear in court, which is the initiation of a deportation proceeding. And they can apply for asylum, but the asylum application process, it's really, really complicated.

LOPEZ: Yeah. And, Deirdre, the optics of thousands of people amassing at the U.S. border with Mexico obviously is not great for the Biden administration. But, you know, optics and policy are two very different things. What is your sense of the reasoning House Republicans are giving for impeaching Secretary Mayorkas right now?

WALSH: I mean, House Republicans or Republicans in general, I think see this issue of the crisis at the border as a huge political advantage for their party going into the 2024 election.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

WALSH: And in terms of Mayorkas, House Republicans are really singling out the secretary of Homeland Security as sort of the person responsible for the failures or the overwhelmed system at the border right now. They say he's ignoring the law. Other people say he's not enforcing the law. But they're sort of making him sort of the poster child.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

WALSH: And I think part of that is that the border - whether it's in districts or states along the border or in districts even away from the border - they're feeling the impact that this situation is having, whether it's in terms of migrants being moved into their communities, like places like New York, or the fentanyl crisis that continues to plague this country and have an impact around the country. And I think the politics, too, are that there seems to be agreement among House Republicans, which aren't always on the same page, about the issue of addressing immigration and impeaching Mayorkas while there isn't agreement necessarily about impeaching President Biden. I mean, they are moving on two tracks to do both, but it seems to me right now they have more agreement amongst their members about targeting the Homeland Security secretary.

LOPEZ: Yeah, and how have House Democrats been responding to all this so far?

WALSH: I mean, they are panning it as purely political. They had a first hearing yesterday in the Homeland Security Committee to start the process of impeaching Mayorkas. Homeland Security Chairman Mark Green says there's going to be a series of hearings. They've invited Mayorkas to appear. He hasn't agreed to appear yet, but they're scheduling another hearing next week. So it seems like they're keeping the process moving. The top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee yesterday, Bennie Thompson, referred to a media report of Green telling donors last April that he was moving forward to impeach Mayorkas, obviously before he did an investigation. And so Thompson and Democrats are, you know, pointing to that and saying this is all about politics. And they want the campaign cash to continue, so they're focused on this issue. But impeaching Mayorkas - their argument is not the way to do it.

LOPEZ: Yeah. And, Deirdre, you know, we're just days away from another possible government shutdown. Is immigration one of those factors that's holding up a deal to keep the government funded?

WALSH: It is. I mean, there was a deal, an overall deal, on how much federal agencies can spend that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Mike Johnson agreed to. But now that they're getting into the details of that, a group of House conservatives are very upset that the speaker agreed to anything with Democrats and are demanding border policies - to change the policy at the border - be added to the spending deal. So there is a possible chance that that could upset the apple cart, and we could be looking at a shutdown. We're only eight days away. And the - you know, the speaker's been meeting with conservatives over the last day or so to sort of see what he can do. But if he changes the deal in any way that he agreed to with Senate Democrats, we will essentially be on a path to a shutdown.

LOPEZ: And, Jasmine, how have local officials and local lawmakers in these border towns - how have they been responding to this surge and border crossings?

GARSD: I mean, I - in some of these towns, I mean, when you look at, you know, towns in Texas and Arizona, one of the things that's been happening now for quite some time is busing of large amounts of migrants to cities throughout the U.S., whether it's Chicago, Denver, New York. And this has caused a great amount of tension, you know, even with Democrat mayors, you know? In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams, who has said, you know, you cannot keep busing people here - you know, because he's saying New York can't handle this influx. And at the same time, you know, you have a lot of local mayors and towns throughout Texas who are saying we also can't handle this amount of people coming in through our town.

LOPEZ: Well, that's a great place to take a break. We'll hear more about Jasmine's reporting from the border after the break. Stay tuned.

Welcome back. Jasmine, just before the new year, there was a meeting in Mexico. The White House sent several high-ranking officials to Mexico City to speak to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador about immigration enforcement. You went to the meeting. Who was there, and how did it go?

GARSD: Notably, it was Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And, you know, prior to this meeting, about a week before, President Biden had spoken to President Lopez Obrador about, you know, collaborating on border enforcement. There was nothing officially declared at this meeting. President Lopez Obrador did say that he would be willing to collaborate with the U.S. on migration. I mean, certainly, Mexico has always collaborated with the U.S. on this. He also said that he didn't think enforcement at the border was going to work. What he said is, if you really want to curb immigration, you need to address the root causes that people are fleeing from.

Now, there were no official conclusions to these meetings, but shortly thereafter, on the Mexico side of the border, you started to see the Mexican National Guard. And there was a significant drop in border crossings through non-authorized pathways. And so, you know, right now I'm in one town, Jacumba, Calif., which is right at the border. And you can, at times, see the Mexican National Guard on the other side. The detention sites, the open-air detention sites where migrants are usually held - they're quite empty.

LOPEZ: And, Deirdre, I guess, how likely are we to see new policies passed in, like, the next six months?

WALSH: Well, I mean, there are bipartisan talks that the Biden administration was part of going on in the Senate. They've been happening for several weeks. I spoke to some of the negotiators just today at Senate votes, and they continue to say they're working. Those talks are focused on sort of two buckets of policy changes, and some of these issues are things that Jasmine brought up earlier in terms of what's happening at the border now. They're focused on potential changes to asylum rules, and they want to tweak those or change those, potentially return them back to something sort of like what was in place under former President Trump. A lot of progressive Democrats are nervous about that prospect. They're also talking about changing the Biden administration's parole rules. There's a lot of uneasiness among progressives about that issue.

I talked to Senator Chris Murphy. He's the top Democrat in these talks. He talked about how important it was for the president to use parole. He says parole rules have allowed the Biden administration to reduce the number of Haitians, Ecuadorians coming in at the border. But he also sort of pushed back at the idea that some Republicans are pushing in terms of potentially capping it, which he thinks, you know, could turn into something where the numbers really go up again at a lot of these border crossings along the southwest border.

CHRIS MURPHY: Parole is one of the ways that the president manages orderly arrivals at the border. Since the president started using his parole authority for Haitians and Nicaraguans, the number of Haitians and Nicaraguans that have arrived at the border have dramatically declined. The Haitians and Nicaraguans that are coming into the country now are vetted.

WALSH: Any kind of bipartisan immigration reform happening on Capitol Hill is kind of a long shot. I mean, this is a...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

WALSH: ...Super thorny issue that Congress has not been able to act on in decades. But there is a bipartisan motivation to get something done because of what Jasmine is seeing - right? - because of the record numbers of displacement from communities across Latin America, South America and Ukraine, right?

GARSD: In talks with, you know, White House officials, they've expressed, you know, a huge amount of frustration over how little, you know, they can do over immigration. Parole is one of the few executive functions where the president can decide on people, you know, from certain either crises like climate crises or, you know, violence and war and allow those people to come into the U.S. legally.

Now, it's not permanent. And I think, you know, one really important thing to consider with parole is that even though it's not permanent - you know, you still can apply for asylum when you're on parole - it does allow you to get a work permit. And that's, like, a really major issue that I've been covering in cities like New York and like Chicago, where, you know, when you come in as a migrant, you don't automatically have work authorization. And as an asylum seeker, it takes a really long time to get a work authorization. And that's something that's been really frustrating to Democrat city mayors in cities like Chicago and in New York, where they've asked the Biden administration, we need folks to be able to support themselves. We cannot be supporting this huge amount of people. That's one of the functions of parole that is really important. You know, you can get a work authorization.

WALSH: And I think in terms of parole, there was a lot of resistance from Democrats to even put that issue on the table in these Senate talks. But I think what Jasmine just talked about is part of the reason why Democrats may be open to potentially some changes, because they do see trying to make it more workable to address the concerns that Jasmine just raised, that they're hearing from cities across the country, may be a reason why it could end up in a deal.

LOPEZ: Yeah. I mean, that being said, does either side really want to do anything about this? Because so far, it looks like this has been pretty great campaign fodder for both Democrats and Republicans but especially Republican presidential candidates so far.

WALSH: I mean, I think it depends on which people you talk to. I mean, I think that Senate Republicans, many of them are open to a bipartisan deal. House Republicans view those talks as not being broad enough. And I think even if they get a deal in the Senate, the place it could run into a brick wall is in the House.

LOPEZ: All right. Jasmine Garsd is NPR's immigration reporter. Thanks for joining us today, Jasmine.

GARSD: Thanks for having me.

LOPEZ: One last note - former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suspended his presidential campaign yesterday. Tomorrow, we'll talk about that, the Iowa caucuses and the ever-shrinking field of candidates. And you might notice something different about the pod. We have a new look and logo on our website and in your podcast feeds. We hope you like it. I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

WALSH: And I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

LOPEZ: Thanks for listening to THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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