NOEL KING, HOST:
The Biden administration is expanding its efforts to allow vulnerable migrants into the U.S. April was the second month in a row that the number of migrants trying to cross the southern border surpassed 170,000. The number of people trying to enter the U.S. from Mexico is at a 20-year high. Most people are being turned away because of a public health order that the Trump administration put in place at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here with me now to explain some of this are NPR's Joel Rose and Max Rivlin-Nadler, who's a reporter with KPBS in San Diego. Both of them cover immigration. Good morning, guys.
MAX RIVLIN-NADLER, BYLINE: Good morning.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.
KING: Joel, let me ask you about the big picture. What is going on at the border?
ROSE: Well, to answer that, it helps to start back at the beginning of the pandemic, when the Trump administration created this public health order that you mentioned that allows immigration authorities to quickly expel most migrants who are apprehended after crossing the border. And that has left thousands of migrants stuck in dangerous Mexican border towns, where they can become targets for kidnapping and other crimes. And as we know, thousands more migrants are arriving every month. The Biden administration has mostly left the public health order in place. But little by little, they have been opening the door to more of these migrants. Teenagers and kids arriving without their parents, for example, have been allowed in to pursue their asylum claims in the U.S. And now the administration is expanding that. We're hearing that transgender migrants are getting in and, increasingly, families with young children as well.
KING: How are they picking who gets in and who does not?
ROSE: Well, we don't really know that exactly.
ROSE: And that has caused a lot of confusion in border communities. One migration expert I talked to said it can seem to migrants like a game of chance. What we do know is that the administration is turning to aid groups for help, increasingly. The idea is that these groups screen the migrants who are tested for COVID-19 and then ushered into the U.S. at ports of entry. Right now, it's a patchwork. The ACLU has a program that is up and running. And there is a new partnership in the works known as the consortium, which includes groups like the International Rescue Committee and other NGOs. I talked to Raymundo Tamayo, who is the IRC's country director for Mexico.
RAYMUNDO TAMAYO: It is an effort to streamline this kind of humanitarian exemption to provide more of a safe and order mechanism so that the U.S. government can process certain individuals who are displaced in Mexico and in vulnerable situations.
ROSE: The hope is that this will lead to a system that is simpler and less chaotic and that that could help U.S. immigration authorities while, at the same time, helping migrants who desperately want to get to safety in the U.S.
KING: OK. Let's talk about a specific place. Max, you work along the border. You're based in San Diego. What are you seeing there?
RIVLIN-NADLER: Like elsewhere on the border, immigrant advocates here have been petitioning U.S. officials to allow the most vulnerable migrants into the U.S. These efforts have been going on for more than a year. But they're finding a more receptive audience with the Biden administration than they did under Trump. These groups have been going into migrant shelters and a migrant encampment in Tijuana to identify individuals and families that are in real danger there. When the advocates get the green light from U.S. officials, they then walk with them to the port of entry, where they're allowed to enter the United States. I met up with one of these groups last week.
KING: OK. So who'd you meet with? And what'd they tell you?
RIVLIN-NADLER: I spoke with Valeria. She was about to cross at the port of entry with her two children through this process. She was fleeing domestic abuse in Michoacan, Mexico, and asked that we not use her full name. Here's how she was feeling right before she entered the United States.
VALERIA: (Non-English language spoken).
RIVLIN-NADLER: She says she feels much more secure because she's going to see her family who already live in the U.S. And it's been so dangerous in Tijuana. As with other migrants, she'll stay in a hotel room in San Diego paid for by the state of California where they can get COVID tests. I should say, only a small number of migrants in Tijuana right now are being allowed into the U.S. That morning, I saw many at the port of entry who are not allowed in because they had not gone through this process.
KING: OK. And, Joel, of course, the Biden administration has been under tremendous pressure about the situation at the border. Regarding this particular expansion of who can come in, what is the administration saying?
ROSE: Well, the administration continues to say, you know, in general, that the border is not open. Remember, they have kept this Trump-era public health order in place for the majority of migrants. And they really don't want to encourage more migration. They have repeatedly urged Central Americans not to make the dangerous trek north through Mexico. But the White House is also under a lot of pressure from immigrant rights groups who say that the administration should be doing more to help these migrants who are seeking protection in the U.S. and to establish a more humane immigration system, which is what Biden promised during the campaign. So the administration is really trying to walk this tightrope. And the pressure is intense. The April border numbers just came out officially this week. And they show that immigration authorities apprehended more than 170,000 migrants at the border last month for the second month in a row, something that has not happened in 20 years.
KING: That's a long time. Also, this is happening at an interesting time - right? - because we have more people getting vaccinated. We have more places that are easing restrictions. Things are going back to, you know, quote-unquote, "normal." Do you think that this public health order that prevents people from coming in is going to continue holding?
ROSE: Yeah. It's a great question. Homeland security officials say that that is up to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Immigrant advocates, though, say it is time for the public health order to end. They say this order was never really about public health. Really, it was about keeping out migrants in their view. And they point out that plenty of people still cross the border every day, including, you know, truckers hauling goods. And they point out that the Border Patrol and customs officers can get the coronavirus vaccines now if they want to.
These advocates say they're glad that more asylum-seekers are being allowed in through this sort of expanded process. But they say these exceptions will only help a few hundred vulnerable migrants a day. Their real end game is to convince the Biden administration to lift the public health order entirely. And, you know, they don't want this system that's emerging to become permanent, you know? And I should note that they do have some leverage here. The ACLU says that this public health order is illegal. They sued the Trump administration to stop applying it to migrant families. The ACLU put that case - agreed to put that case on hold earlier this year when the Biden administration came in. But they could decide to go back to court if they don't like how it's going.
KING: NPR's Joel Rose and Max Rivlin-Nadler of member station KPBS. Thank you both for your reporting. We appreciate it.
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