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President Biden promised to reform immigration policy. How has that been going?


* President Biden came into office promising a change of direction after former President Trump's immigration crackdown. He had an ambitious agenda to overhaul the nation's border policies. But as the end of the year approaches, many of those proposals have been blocked, reversed or simply abandoned. We're going to spend a few minutes now looking at the state of immigration with NPR's Joel Rose, who covers migration policy from here in the states, and NPR's Carrie Kahn, our correspondent in Mexico City. Good to have you both here.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.


SHAPIRO: Joel, President Biden has a long list of proposed immigration reforms. How successful has his administration been in changing course from the previous administration?

ROSE: Well, not very overall. I mean, the administration came in promising to roll back some of former President Trump's harshest immigration policies, you know, and to build a safe and humane immigration system. And the Biden administration does have some things that it can point to as successes, like mostly stopping construction of the border wall and also helping to reunite about 100 migrant families that were forcibly separated during the Trump administration. But the Biden administration really has not succeeded in other areas. It just pulled out of settlement talks to provide compensation for the families that were forcibly separated, and its attempts to rebuild the asylum system at the southern border have just not gotten a lot of traction. And so we end the year with some of the Trump administration's key border policies still in place and even expanding.

SHAPIRO: And what does the situation on the border look like right now?

ROSE: Well, the headline is that there's been a surge in the number of migrants crossing the border illegally. The Border Patrol recorded nearly 1.7 million encounters in the fiscal year that ended in September. That is the most ever recorded in a fiscal year. But keep in mind that more than 1 million of those migrants were quickly expelled under a controversial public health order known as Title 42 that began in 2020 under former President Trump and continues under President Biden. So many of these migrants were actually counted more than once in the total figures. But no matter how you count it, it is a lot of migrants. That's putting a huge strain on the border patrol and on border communities, and it's also been a huge political liability for the Biden administration as Republicans have tried all year to blame the president for what they call a crisis and chaos at the border.

SHAPIRO: Carrie, many of those migrants are passing through Mexico, and many of them are being sent back to Mexico from the U.S. So you're sitting in Mexico City. How is that country responding?

KAHN: Mexico has also seen record numbers of migrants coming through and also, like you say, staying in the country. We've seen huge migrant camps set up on both Mexico's southern and northern border. I was in Tijuana in late fall at a huge camp right at the pedestrian crossing gate that goes right into the U.S. And it was filled with hundreds of people. And here's one woman talking about conditions there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She was too scared to give her name. She was fleeing violence in Central America and was hoping to apply for asylum soon in the U.S. But she said no government is helping the migrants in this camp. The rains come, and it's muddy. It's cold. It's dirty. And the migrants just have to band together to help themselves. The number of migrants applying for refugee or asylum in Mexico has tripled this year over last year's numbers. More than 120,000 have applied. And Mexico is, you know, struggling to deal with all of them. The government's also dealing with budget cuts, COVID and a slow economic recovery, too.

SHAPIRO: You've been down to Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. How does what you see there now compare with previous years?

KAHN: I guess, Ari, the biggest thing is - that I see is just the number of nationalities, the number of people from all over the world coming through Mexico, and especially the number of Haitians arriving. I was just in southern Mexico earlier this month, and migrant camps are all over the city - thousands of people camping on the side of a highway, in a park, all waiting for transit visas or asylum applications. Listen to Tinac Lena. He's a Haitian I interviewed. He told me about the frustration of having to stay in southern Mexico, where there are no jobs and there's no money.

TINAC LENA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: And he's speaking in broken Spanish. And everyone around us is shouting, too, and they're all saying how this is not the way to treat humans in Mexico. You know, the president here, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has long said the only way to combat migration is helping people back in their home countries. But in the first three years of his administration, we see Mexico relying heavily on detention and deportation, especially at the southern border. That's the whole plan, is to keep migrants as far from the U.S. border as possible for as long as possible.

SHAPIRO: Joel, let's talk about that policy known as Remain in Mexico, officially the Migrant Protection Protocols. It was hugely controversial under President Trump. This is the policy that forces some asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. Why is the Biden administration restarting it?

ROSE: Well, the Biden administration insists that it is restarting this policy under duress. President Biden has called it dangerous and inhumane. His administration has tried to end it several times, but a federal judge in Texas forced the administration to revive it earlier this year. And so this month, immigration authorities started returning some migrants to Mexico - so far not many, just a few hundred. The administration says it is also putting in place additional humanitarian protections for these migrants. But immigrant advocates are not convinced that that's going to make much of a difference. I talked this month with Eleanor Acer at the nonprofit Human Rights First.

ELEANOR ACER: The program is designed to return people to a place where their lives are in danger, to prevent them from having meaningful access to counsel. And no amount of lip service to legal representation and due process can erase that reality.

ROSE: Immigrant advocates also point out that no court required the Biden administration to expand Remain in Mexico, which they did to now include Haitians and Brazilians. So immigrant advocates think this is really intended as a deterrent.

SHAPIRO: Carrie, we've talked about Central Americans, Haitians, but one group that has increasingly been crossing the border this year are Mexicans themselves. This is after many years of low migration of Mexicans into the U.S. Why is that?

KAHN: Yeah, they are. They're now the largest number of migrants crossing illegally into the U.S. And as Joel mentioned in the beginning, some of those numbers may be inflated because of that health rule that was put in by the Trump administration that people are just expelled right across the border. So you get a lot of people trying multiple times. And I met some Mexicans in the summer who - when I was up at the border, in the northern border - and they had been trying 10, even 12 times to cross illegally. So some of those numbers might be inflated.

But part of the reason is COVID, the economic problems here in Mexico. But, also, there's a lot of violence in many parts of Mexico that are driving people from their homes. They're going to the U.S., also, to ask for asylum. And there are jobs in the U.S. I hear that a lot by migrants from all nationalities. They are coming for jobs in the U.S. as the economy there is recovering from COVID. And family members tell them the U.S. is hiring, and they want to come.

SHAPIRO: Joel, can you reflect on why immigration has been such an intractable issue for presidents of both parties?

ROSE: To me, the factors that drive migration are not entirely under the control of Washington. I mean, the Trump administration tried deterrents. It tried family separation and Remain in Mexico, but migrants kept coming - you know, nearly a million in fiscal year 2019. The Biden administration has focused instead on trying to tackle the root causes of migration. But these are not problems with quick fixes. I mean, migrants are facing poverty and food insecurity and lack of basic safety in their home countries. And meanwhile, like Carrie said, the U.S. has jobs. So, you know, the fundamental push and pull factors don't really change no matter who is in the White House.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Joel Rose in Washington and Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Thank you both.

ROSE: You're welcome.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.