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The U.S. Border Immigration Problem

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

* How do you have a humane immigration policy that does not encourage illegal immigration? President Biden is grappling with just that question. Biden is already facing criticism over decisions to deport migrants and open a temporary shelter at the border as he seeks to reverse the draconian policies of his predecessor. To talk more about the challenges ahead is Doris Meissner. She is a senior fellow and director at the Migration Policy Institute.

Hello.

DORIS MEISSNER: Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Washington Post obtained an email from Immigration and Customs Enforcement saying we need to prepare for border surges now. What do you make of that? I mean, what do you make of reports that there will be a surge of immigrants trying to cross the border now that there's a President Biden and not a President Trump?

MEISSNER: I think there's no surprise that the numbers of people coming are increasing because it is very clear that the Biden administration is committed to reversing the policies of the last administration and to making it be possible for migrants who are claiming asylum and looking for protection to actually have their cases be heard. But, of course, the issue then becomes a real difficult one for managing those numbers and putting the changes in place without getting into an emergency situation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, does this administration have sort of the tools to deal with the surge? I mean, there's already concerns about opening temporary shelters, especially for young migrants - underage migrant children.

MEISSNER: Well, there does have to be an infrastructure at the border for processing people. And so the opening of shelters should be seen as a positive sign because you don't want to have a humanitarian crisis on the border where people have no place to go, which is what we did see two years ago when the Trump administration was trying to keep people out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you envisioning Biden going back to the very heavily criticized under Trump tactic of what was called catch and release - that if you had unauthorized entries, you would process the migrants and then allow them into the community with the hopes that they would show up to a court date? I mean, that was virtually stopped under President Trump as a way of dissuading people from crossing the border.

MEISSNER: What the Biden administration is envisioning is having people be able to have their cases heard but heard promptly. The difficulty with the way in which this has been handled in the past is that the backlogs in the immigration courts are so long that people are waiting in the country for years before their cases get heard. And that, of course, does lead to misuse of the system, and that does invite future migration.

So what the administration needs to put in place is a system where people are able to file their claims, are able to get legal representation, get a prompt decision. Those who are eligible to stay can stay. Those who are not do need to be returned. And I think that this connects also to the Biden administration's vision of working more aggressively - much more aggressively with the countries in the region because the administration recognizes that some people are eligible for asylum; some people are not eligible for asylum.

And for those people who are not eligible for asylum, the question is returning in a humane fashion, connecting people with services in their country. Those services need to be built. There needs to be much more assistance and engagement with the governments in the region to reduce corruption, to reduce violence, the very circumstances that the people are fleeing, which are always a mixture of economic circumstances, more and more, possibly, climate problems that have ravaged these countries and governance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That sounds like a lot of what President Obama did, with mixed success. And President Trump actually did work closely with Mexican and Central American governments. He applied the stick more than the carrot. He forged deals so that they could enforce their own borders and curb migration, among other measures. There is a sense that what President Trump did actually - if your goal is to reduce migration, unauthorized crossings of the border, it worked.

MEISSNER: There's no question that what President Trump did worked. The issue is at what cost, at what price? And that's a price that has had to do with our values as a country, with our laws as a country. And so the difficulty for the Biden administration is to develop a system at the border so that these decisions can be made promptly. It's the years and years of waiting that are the ultimate breakdown in the system. That needs to be solved.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Doris Meissner is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, where she directs the institute's U.S. immigration policy work.

Thank you so much.

MEISSNER: Thank you, Lulu.

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