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What Biden's new immigration policies mean for the United States — and Latin America

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

After years of record apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration is trying a tougher approach. And while there's been a lot of criticism of this approach, immigration authorities say it's working so far. That's according to preliminary data released last week, which show a sharp decline in the number of migrants crossing into the U.S. illegally in recent weeks. We're going to take a closer look now at what's happening on both sides of the border with NPR's Eyder Peralta, who is based in Mexico City.

Hey, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: And NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration, is here with me in D.C.

Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi.

RASCOE: OK. So, Joel, let's start with you. It's been a few weeks since the administration announced these new enforcement measures. Can you walk us through what they are?

ROSE: Sure. These are new restrictions for migrants coming from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela, who made up a large and growing share of the migrants who've been crossing in recent months. The administration announced earlier this month that it would begin rapidly expelling these migrants under the pandemic restrictions known as Title 42, which had been difficult because it was impossible before now to send them back to their home countries, and Mexico had refused to take them either. At the same time, the administration announced a legal pathway that allows up to 30,000 migrants a month from those four countries to enter the U.S. temporarily under a process known as parole. And that allows them to live and work in the U.S. legally for two years. But this new process is only open to migrants who have a financial sponsor in the U.S. And crucially, they also have to apply from abroad without crossing the border illegally.

RASCOE: Eyder, you've been talking to migrants trying to make their way across Mexico and Central America. How does this policy look to them?

PERALTA: It's left them in limbo. A lot of them have decided to stay here in Mexico. So they make these huge lines at immigration offices. And recently, I went to talk to a few of them. They were sleeping outside, waiting for a work permit because they say that all these new requirements make it impossible to get to the U.S. And it's not necessarily the big things, like the sponsors that Joel mentioned. For a lot of them, it's that they don't have a passport. They left home in a hurry. Or they've gotten wet or destroyed along the way. And it takes hundreds of dollars to replace them in Haiti. Since the new requirements went into place, the price of a passport doubled. And the immigrants I was talking to here in Mexico City told me that one of their friends, Kelvin Jimenez (ph), was lucky because he had this raggedy passport. But he laughed and said that he couldn't even apply even if he had a passport. Let's listen.

KELVIN JIMENEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: So he said that he has a passport but no sponsor. But he says they've gotten used to the hardship, and they've gotten used to sleeping on the streets. A lot of the migrants I spoke to here over the past few months describe themselves as this kind of floating society - that they're moving through the jungle from city to city. And they feel that no one, really, is willing to offer them refuge.

RASCOE: Joel, we're hearing what Eyder is reporting, but we said at the top that immigration authorities think these policies are working. So what is that based on?

ROSE: Yeah, immigration authorities say they are having a significant effect on the number of illegal crossings. And authorities did release some data this week that backs up that claim. They say the number of migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela apprehended at the border has plummeted more than 90% in recent weeks compared to December. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says that is proof that this new approach is working. We should note it is very unusual for immigration authorities to publicly release preliminary data about the border before the month is over, which I think shows a couple of things. The administration, for one, really wants to show a drop in illegal border crossings. And two, they seem to be worried about a lawsuit that was filed last week by a group of 20 states led by Texas. It was filed on Tuesday in federal court in south Texas. And they're seeking to block the new parole program for migrants from these four countries. They say the Biden administration is overstepping its authority here by basically creating a new visa program without authorization from Congress. The states argue that parole is supposed to be exceptionally limited and only on a case-by-case basis and that the Biden administration is abusing that power by letting in potentially hundreds of thousands of migrants.

RASCOE: So, Eyder, let's talk about the role of Mexico in all of this. Why is the government there going along with these new enforcement policies?

PERALTA: I mean, on the surface, what they say is that they're trying to make migrants safer. They say that these policies take migrants out of the hands of human smugglers. But this is also about pragmatism. Mexico is getting more temporary worker visas for their citizens. And in the end, Mexico wants fewer Latin Americans leaving their countries. So they don't end up here. What immigrants rights activists tell you is that these policies discourage migration, and that's exactly what the United States and Mexico want.

RASCOE: There seems to be a real shift by the Biden administration toward tougher enforcement at the border. But how is that sitting with immigrant advocates and with Democrats?

ROSE: They're mad. They say that President Biden campaigned against some of the very Trump administration immigration policies that his administration is now emulating. More than 70 Democrats signed a letter this week calling on the White House to reconsider some of these new enforcement measures. Those who signed that want the administration to stop expelling migrants under Title 42. They also want the Biden administration to drop plans for sharp new limits on asylum for migrants who crossed the border illegally or after passing through another country without seeking protection there. Here's Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT MENENDEZ: Anyone who tells you that the only way to secure our border is to punish asylum seekers is lying. It's why we are appalled to see President Biden replicate President Trump's immigration strategy.

ROSE: The Biden administration disputes that it's replicating anything. But immigrant advocates do see these policies as basically identical and say they will go to court to block this proposed asylum rule if they have to.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Joel Rose in Washington, D.C. and Eyder Peralta in Mexico City.

Thank you both for your reporting.

ROSE: You're welcome.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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