Activists Decry Biden's Migrant Children Policy : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden hasn't reinstated family separation policies, but his choice to keep migrant children in a shelter facility has drawn criticism from activists. And the Conservative Political Action Conference has evolved in five short years into a Trump-centric affair.

This episode: White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Activists Decry Biden's Migrant Children Policy

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Activists Decry Biden's Migrant Children Policy

Activists Decry Biden's Migrant Children Policy

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QUINN: Hi, this is Quinn (ph).

CALEB: And this is Caleb (ph).

QUINN: We're celebrating the two-year anniversary of our first date, where we went to go see Ayesha Rascoe speak at the University of Wisconsin, after which, we went ice skating and got Caleb's car stuck in the snow.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

(Laughter).

QUINN: This podcast was recorded at...

RASCOE: It is 1:10 p.m. on Friday, February 26.

QUINN: Some things may have changed by the time you hear this, but we will still be very much in love and nerding out over the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. Enjoy the show.

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

RASCOE: Wow.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: That's awesome.

RASCOE: That is amazing. And it - when I was in Wisconsin, it was a big, huge snowstorm. It was, like, at least a foot of snow. It was - and it was cold as I don't know what. So I'm glad that they found love, that they warmed their hearts. I'm glad.

ORDOÑEZ: And you are always going to be part of that love, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Yes.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: That is sweet. And I am glad that they got home safe and you did, too.

RASCOE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

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

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

RASCOE: Happy Friday, everybody. We made it. Yay.

ORDOÑEZ: Yay.

MONTANARO: (Laughter) Yeah, maybe it's happy Friday for you guys, but I've got to work this weekend.

RASCOE: Oh, yeah. That's a shame. We'll get to that later. I think I know what you're going to be working on.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

RASCOE: But let's start with today. Franco, the president is in Texas today. What's he doing?

ORDOÑEZ: Obviously, we had that really big wintry weather. So many families - thousands and thousands of families - lost power. It was just a real big crisis, so the president, you know, declared a national emergency. And he's going there to meet with state and local officials to check in and see how things are going.

RASCOE: And this is a very traditional part of the role that the president plays and a role that President Biden has embraced, maybe more so than almost any other modern president, and that's being a consoler-in-chief.

ORDOÑEZ: Exactly. These are those presidential moments where the president goes and make sure to let the people know that he is thinking of them and understands and sympathizes with them. It is something that, you know, former President Donald Trump kind of had a little bit more of a harder time doing. But this is something that President Biden has really embraced - not only with this, but also obviously with the deaths from the COVID crisis and so many other things that have impacted us even just in the last few weeks.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, look; President Biden, you know, even before he became president, he was known for this kind of empathy. I mean, his own political history was born of tragedy. You know, then his son died later in his career. He wrote an entire book about it, actually, about how he kind of has grown into this role of - this pastoral role of trying to empathize with people going through grief.

RASCOE: But Biden also this week is facing some criticism for another issue where emotions run very high, and that's the reopening of this facility for holding kids at the border or housing kids at the border. Franco, I know you've been reporting on this. Do we know why the administration took the step of reopening this facility that I think was started by the Trump administration?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It was started by the Trump administration back in 2019. They only used it for a couple of months, though. But President Biden has reopened it because there's been a surge on the border. You know, thousands and thousands of people are coming to the border, and many of those who are arriving are unaccompanied minor. They're teenagers. And the administration decided to open this facility or reopen this facility in order to have a place for these kids. The circumstances are worse and more - it's more needed because of the pandemic, because of the coronavirus and the need for more space - you know, space between beds to keep some of these young people six feet apart.

And the administration says it was a tough choice but that they had kind of no choice to do so because it was either that or send the kids back on a dangerous journey, you know, to their home countries. Or another option would be to, you know, let them back into the United States without properly vetting the people that they're with. And, you know, in the past, that has created other types of problems and the children being trafficked. So they said this was the best option they had of - not necessarily a good one.

MONTANARO: And he's obviously going to get flak from the left on this. He already is getting flak from the left on this. But, you know, what is the sort of more realistic, humane option as they see it? Because this is a very tricky situation for President Biden, given that they're taking this softer approach to immigration, which conservatives had said that they thought that that would create a magnet for more people to come into the country. I just wonder what the more realistic, you know, sort of humane approach is that the left sees.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it's a difficult question. And it's one of the things that the Biden administration is really struggling with. I mean, they campaigned on a - taking a more humane approach. But sometimes that is hard when you come with the realities of, you know, enforcing immigration laws. And there are limitations to what you can do.

You know, the administration will tell you that this is a temporary option, that they want to get these children to sponsors as quickly as possible, that it should only be a few weeks. But there is great concern about this being kind of looking like, smelling like the status quo of how it's been over the years, kind of these housing of these children and not being the best option for these kids - institution-type setting. It's much better to be in families.

Now, how - what are those options, you ask? I am told from advocates that many of these young people are - actually may not be traveling with their parents, may not be traveling with their mother or father, but they are traveling with a loved one, an aunt or an uncle. And they would like - the advocates would like, you know, that to be a little bit better vetted at the border so the kids can be released into the, you know, custody of their loved ones. Now, the administration will tell you that, you know, you've got to be very careful to make sure because sometimes they will say it's a loved one, but it's actually being trafficked. So there is some risk there, and the administration, you know, has responsibility for these kids. It's a really - it's really a tough situation.

RASCOE: And we should right now, you know, make the distinction - or we need to make a distinction here between what is happening right now - because you mentioned the status quo, Franco, of, you know, the way immigration policy has worked for years - and what happened under the Trump administration because there was a difference with the zero-tolerance policy and family separation. Are we seeing a policy aimed at separating children from their parents at any age? Like, that's what was happening under the Trump administration, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, this is not the same as the zero-tolerance policy. It's not detention, the administration would say. These are shelters. They're not operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. These are Health and Human Services facilities. They include rooms. In some of the pictures we've seen, they have bunk beds. They have ballfields. You know, they get medical care. They get education services.

That said, it's still an institutional facility. The facility that was opened up in Texas just this week is for 700 kids. And that has these advocates raising a lot of concerns. I mean, just one concern being raised, for example, by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - she says, you know, this is just not OK. This has never been OK, never will be OK, no matter the administration or parties - kind of how she tweeted about it.

RASCOE: So it seems like some people are just simply - and some critics of this just say that the conditions in which these children are held is unacceptable regardless of, you know, whether it's a policy or not, that the conditions under which children are held in general at the border need to be completely overhauled.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there are - you know, some of the folks on the left have different levels of patience for that to happen. Obviously, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used her platform and said quickly, said immediately, this is not OK. It's never OK.

But there are other groups on the left who are willing to give the administration a little bit more time and flexibility. But at the same time, they are watching very, very closely. And there is no question that they are concerned that this could become, you know, a continuation of the status quo. And they will not be happy with that.

RASCOE: Domenico, before we take a break, can we just talk a bit about the COVID relief bill? The House votes on it tonight. But there is - there was a provision raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and that got stripped out. What's going on with that?

MONTANARO: Well, look; this has been a major contentious issue, this $15 minimum wage. Because Democrats are using this budgetary process called budget reconciliation - because Republicans aren't on board with the COVID bill because they say it's too expensive - you have to go through the Senate parliamentarian, who's the referee who will say whether or not provisions of what you're trying to put through are related to the budget and whether they pass muster.

And the Senate parliamentarian, she said that the $15 wage does not. I don't think this is going to be the end of the fight on the $15 minimum wage, but it's not going to be in the COVID relief bill.

RASCOE: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about what's happening at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, ahead of former President Trump's speech on Sunday.

And we're back. So the big annual conference of conservatives, CPAC, is happening right now in sunny Florida because - it normally would be here in D.C. But, you know, coronavirus and all these things happening, so they went to Florida, where there are less restrictions. And they are now talking about the future of conservatism. Domenico, tell us more about that.

MONTANARO: Well, you know, this is my 14th year covering CPAC, which is kind of hard to believe. And it has...

RASCOE: Wow.

MONTANARO: ...Gone through...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: It has gone through a lot...

RASCOE: Hairstyles have changed (laughter).

MONTANARO: Not that much, to be honest. You know, that's a different conversation. But...

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANARO: But, you know, like, CPAC itself, though, has gone through a lot of different iterations, and that's the grassroots conservative movement that's really been taken over, frankly, by the Trump wing of the party. You know, sort of went through this populist strain - you know, the Tea Party sort of coming up - and really has taken over what were traditional mainstream Republicans.

You know, during the Bush years, they were defending the Bush legacy and the Iraq war. You had a lot more national security hawks. During Obama, they were really struggling for their identity. And really now, their identity is Trump. You know, you might as well call this thing TPAC because it's all about him.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it's that - you know, CPAC is that place where all that fiery rhetoric and drama comes. You know, for many people, it's a rite of passage, you know, an audition to the thousands of very important base supporters of the party. Last year, former Vice President Pence, Ambassador Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state - all of them were kind of auditioning for the potential of 2024. You know, that was obviously before this last election - you know, still thinking ahead after Trump.

MONTANARO: You know, what's funny about that is that this is usually a cattle call for presidential hopefuls who can sort of test out their message coming up in 2024 or whenever. You know, Trump has really frozen the field because he's dangled out this idea that he's going to potentially run again or at least wants to be the one to make that decision. And I remember back in 2016, he actually snubbed CPAC because CPAC had all these rules for the kind of speech they wanted him to give. They wanted him to answer questions. And I've got to tell you; at this cattle call now, there's not going to be any penning Trump in.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah.

RASCOE: Well, and, you know, one of the things is, is there really a battle within the GOP over Trump? It seems like Trump has pretty much won, and there are just some somewhat loud voices against him, but they're getting a little more quiet. But one person who is not being quiet about this is Liz Cheney, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who's also in leadership in the House. And there was that weird moment - right, Domenico...

MONTANARO: Right.

RASCOE: ...Between Liz Cheney and Kevin McCarthy, who is the - you know, the leader of the Republicans in the House. And they were asked about Trump at CPAC.

MONTANARO: Yeah, they were. And, you know, McCarthy said, you know, absolutely; Trump should be there. But Liz Cheney is sort of over his left shoulder a few feet behind him. And a reporter wanted to know what she thought because remember; she voted for Trump's impeachment. And here's what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZ CHENEY: That's up to CPAC. I've been clear on my views about President Trump and the extent to which, following January 6, I don't believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.

KEVIN MCCARTHY: On that high note, thank you all very much.

MONTANARO: So you can hear there McCarthy trying to lighten things up as they both walked off right after that press conference. And, you know, we talk about this divide, but we really have to make clear this is not a 50-50 divide, as you are alluding to, Ayesha. You know, this is maybe 75-25, you know, 85-15 kind of divide, where most of the party is right on board and in line with Trump and, you know, a very small, maybe vocal minority who don't like the direction it's headed.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It was very interesting to me. After January 6, you know, you had folks like Senator Lindsey Graham speaking out, saying, we're ready to get off this Trump train, and just how quickly things went back to how they were. I mean, yes, as, you know, Domenico was talking about, Liz Cheney - also, you know, Richard Burr, who also voted for impeachment. But all those who voted for impeachment are now getting really kicked back. And, I mean, I'm just very curious about what the direction will be moving forward. But it does seem like it is the Tea Party or Trump Party, as Domenico says.

RASCOE: So, Domenico, I'm assuming there probably aren't a lot of panels on, like, balancing the budget...

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...At this year's CPAC because that doesn't seem to be a focus of certain conservatives much anymore. What are they focusing on?

MONTANARO: Well, there actually is one panel on the fact that they think that the debt still matters - you know, somebody...

RASCOE: OK.

MONTANARO: ...Making an argument to that. But look; there's a string of panels that are weaving through the idea that the election was stolen from Trump. As we know - you know, he made these misleading claims, this basically disinformation campaign over months, you know, with claims of widespread election fraud. And there are several panels on this. For example, some of the names - Other Culprits: Why Judges and the Media Refuse to Look at the Evidence, The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered it Up and Even Admits It, and Failed States: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Oh, My.

I mean, you know, none of this stuff is true, but it's something that the CPAC organizers are going to keep well and alive in the base as this sense of false grievance to give them something to fight on for.

RASCOE: And I wonder what - what is Trump expected to say on Sunday?

MONTANARO: Well, we're going to hear from him. And, you know, what I think we're expected to hear him talk about is the future of the party, what we're talking about, and really making clear that he is the future of the party - you know, if not him himself, you know, his philosophy of doing things. And as we know, he is just, you know, the main presence. He's the most popular person in the party. And, you know, I'm going to be curious to see if he draws distinctions with President Biden. And, you know, we were talking about immigration earlier in the podcast. I think that's a ripe area for former President Trump to draw distinctions. It's always been a thing that's animated not just his politics, but his base's.

RASCOE: All right. One more break, and it's time for a Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. It's time to end the show like we do every week, with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just can't stop talking about, politics or otherwise, with strong emphasis on the otherwise. So, starting with Domenico, what can't you let go of this week?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, I keep thinking about cooking because during this pandemic, I've taken up a lot of different recipes and, you know, trying to make, you know, different kinds of foods. It's really been a lot of fun, frankly. And there's this one recipe that keeps coming up over and over again in my Instagram timelines. I'm not much of a TikTok person, but, you know, it came from there. And I saw this headline in The Wall Street Journal that just - I was obsessed with this story. TikTok's feta pasta is a thing.

ORDOÑEZ: I saw that.

MONTANARO: Everyone is doing it wrong.

RASCOE: What?

MONTANARO: Everyone is doing it wrong.

RASCOE: What?

ORDOÑEZ: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: You guys know what I'm talking about, right? They take this block of feta cheese. They put it in the middle of a casserole dish. They surround it with cherry tomatoes, throw some oil on, throw it in the oven, broil it up and, like, voila. You just, you know, stir it all together. You get this creamy thing, right? Looks easy, looks super simple. That's because, as we know from this podcast, stuff is edited.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: There's a lot of editing that goes on.

MONTANARO: And it does not come out correctly the first time almost ever for anything, right? And I have not - I will just say, I have not attempted this recipe. I was thinking about it, but it looks just so, frankly, unhealthy. But boy, oh, boy, the responses that people have gotten from the person who started this thing who's a Finnish food blogger - Finland - this person writes, you're supposed to take - you're supposed to get a really creamy texture. I just got a puddle.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: You know, there's - you know, and he says, the liquid tasted great, though. You know, and there's all these people...

ORDOÑEZ: Tasted great (laughter).

MONTANARO: ...Writing in because they didn't have the right feta. It wasn't creamy enough. You know, I don't know. It's just - it's one of those things that just caught my eye.

ORDOÑEZ: We need more shots in arms - shots in arms. We need to get out of these houses.

(LAUGHTER)

ORDOÑEZ: I need to get out of my back room.

RASCOE: Franco's like, this means we need to get out of the house. But I'm fascinated by this. So is the feta cheese and tomatoes - that's it? And you're supposed to - and you melt it...

MONTANARO: And pasta.

RASCOE: ...And that's supposed to make - and pasta.

MONTANARO: Yeah.

RASCOE: OK.

MONTANARO: But boy, people have done a lot of different variations with this. And, you know, as all cooks know, these things - you know, a miniscule change - the wrong temperature, the wrong kind of cheese, pasta overcooked, the wrong kind of tomatoes - someone actually tried to use canned tomatoes with this, which is just ludicrous.

RASCOE: OK. I would try that. I would try that.

MONTANARO: Yeah, but that doesn't make - it makes no sense...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: ...To do that. When you're looking at cherry - like, there's a totally different consistency, temperature, the whole thing. And it ruins the whole thing. One woman actually tried to do it with strawberries and feta, and it actually, she said, came out quite good. But boy, she really hit a nerve because one person wrote her and said, you know, you deserve to go to jail, that you ruined this recipe.

ORDOÑEZ: Jail?

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: She said, I'd never seen reactions...

RASCOE: Lock her up.

MONTANARO: She said, I'd never seen reactions like that - people telling me I need to go to jail. I mean...

ORDOÑEZ: Oh, my goodness.

MONTANARO: I'm with Franco. We need to get out of this...

RASCOE: Yes.

MONTANARO: ...Fast because the wrong people are cooking.

ORDOÑEZ: Let's all go get a burger when the virus...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Anyway, Franco, what can't you let go of?

ORDOÑEZ: So my Can't Let It Go, I would say, is a lot more inspiring than that dangerous tale.

(LAUGHTER)

ORDOÑEZ: Maybe you have heard about this, a woman - her name is Lucia de Klerk. She is the oldest resident in her New Jersey nursing home. Now, get this; she tested positive for the coronavirus on her birthday, on her 105th birthday.

MONTANARO: Wow.

RASCOE: Oh, my gosh.

ORDOÑEZ: But wait, wait, wait. She tested - also, she tested just one day after she got her second vaccine shot. I mean...

MONTANARO: Oh, no.

ORDOÑEZ: ...Come on.

RASCOE: Oh, man.

ORDOÑEZ: But as I said...

MONTANARO: It's unjust.

ORDOÑEZ: It is unjust. It is an inspiring tale, though, like I said. She beat it. She beat it. And this may be the best part. OK, it's probably not the best part. I think it's maybe the funnest (ph) part. The reason she says she beat it, the things that she gives credit to, are gin-soaked raisins that she eats every day.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: My goodness.

ORDOÑEZ: Let that sink in - gin-soaked raisins every day.

MONTANARO: Let that soak in? Is that what you're saying? Let it...

ORDOÑEZ: (Laughter).

RASCOE: Yes.

MONTANARO: ...Soak in.

ORDOÑEZ: Nine of them.

MONTANARO: Just nine raisins?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Are you guys writing this down?

MONTANARO: No, I'm just very confused by all this. But...

RASCOE: That helps her - I can believe that, though. And I bet it gives her a nice buzz if you eat it early in the morning (laughter).

MONTANARO: I am always struck by people who have made it to the century mark and the kind of vices that they say that they still have and that they've made it through. You know, look; they - God bless them. They have great genes. And, you know, we'd all be lucky to get to that point.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I'm going to forward you some more information about Lucia because she is full of tips - and, you know, including brushing your teeth with baking soda, which, by the way...

RASCOE: I thought you were going to say brushing your teeth with vodka or something like that.

(LAUGHTER)

ORDOÑEZ: That may work, too. But she does claim to have - she did not have a cavity until she was 99 years old.

RASCOE: Oh, wow.

MONTANARO: Wow. That is good genes.

RASCOE: OK.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah.

MONTANARO: So, Ayesha, what can you not let go of this week?

RASCOE: I can't let go of something. And I think that this is very fitting for this panel that I'm on right now because we are a panel. I don't know if you guys know that (laughter).

MONTANARO: Where are you going with this?

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: It's that - everyone might have heard of this, or maybe you didn't because it didn't make much news. But the former president, Barack Obama, and this little-known singer-songwriter - I don't know - Bruce Springsteen, they have...

MONTANARO: Oh, I know...

RASCOE: ...Started a...

MONTANARO: ...What's happening.

RASCOE: ...Podcast. What I thought was funny is that they're these two dads, older men who to me seem to be kind of trying to reclaim their cool - or maybe they think they're still cool because then they named the show "Renegades" (laughter).

MONTANARO: Hey, that was Obama's - that was Obama's Secret Service nickname. That was his Secret Service codename. Yeah.

RASCOE: Oh, I get that. And that's really cool to tell his friends.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

RASCOE: But I don't...

ORDOÑEZ: Ayesha, do you have a problem with dads trying to be cool?

RASCOE: (Laughter) Well, that's why I thought it was good to talk to you two about it...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: ...Because I'm not saying you're older, but you're dads.

MONTANARO: Yeah, that's true. I don't profess to be cool. Let's just put it that way. But, you know, it's nice to be listened to once in a while, especially with - when you have children.

ORDOÑEZ: (Laughter).

RASCOE: Yes. But yeah, I mean, I just felt like - well, No. 1, I feel like maybe Obama has a lot of time on his hands. Like, I feel like it's hard when you become president, like, in your 50s, 60s, whatever. Like, he still has a lot of time to go, right? Like...

MONTANARO: He'd better start eating those, you know, gin-soaked Southern almonds or whatever he said that he eats.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Put the almonds in gin.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: All right. That's a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Claire Obi (ph). I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

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

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

RASCOE: And thank you 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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