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Updates On The Biden Administration's Response To Migrants At The Border

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What, if anything, can the United States do about migrants and asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border? The number of new arrivals has been increasing just as a new administration tries to work out a new policy. President Biden told reporters yesterday that most who reach the U.S. are being deported.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming. We're trying to work out now with Mexico their willingness to take more of those families back. But we - that's what's happening. They're not getting across the border.

INSKEEP: So it's not an open border, which is a common talking point of Republicans. But enough people are crossing that the new administration faces a sharp increase in unaccompanied minors. Those are people the U.S. cannot humanely send back. So the U.S. has to figure out something to do with them. The truth is, this is the latest surge in a long-running problem. And the Biden administration is the latest of several to face it, which brings us to our next guest. Juan Gonzalez is on the line. He serves as a special assistant to the president and the National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere. He's just been traveling in Mexico, has been talking with officials there about a problem he's worked on before when he served years ago in the Obama administration. Mr. Gonzalez, welcome to the program.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Good morning, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: How do you define the problem you're trying to solve?

GONZALEZ: Well, first, I want to say I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the northwest highlands of Guatemala. And so when you think about the communities that are migrating from that country, these are the ones that are often the most marginalized. You have in El Salvador the highest rate of femicide; Honduras, you have a combination of violence and political instability and of course, the two hurricanes that displaced hundreds of thousands of people. And so, you know, the president says, you know, these aren't people that, you know, want to pack up and take the dangerous journey of the United States. But they are coming here driven by various factors.

INSKEEP: Do you want them not to come?

GONZALEZ: Well, we want to have a border that is able to obviously enforce U.S. laws but process migrants humanely, and we inherited a system that was, I think, willfully dismantled and unable to manage the border as it should be managed. The president has put forward, I think, a comprehensive approach to this. And what I mean by that is that it's not just a border management approach. He recognizes that our immigration system needs to be repaired, that people here in the country currently as undocumented need to be brought out of the shadows, but that it's not enough to look at the border and kind of manage our immigration system. You have to address the root causes of migration in order to address migration sustainably, the, you know, insecurity and poverty. Otherwise, we're going to be spending billions and billions of dollars every year in border management and deal with a seasonal crisis whenever the surges comes. The only way to address it is at the source.

INSKEEP: I'm glad that you talked about the source there. We're going to pick up on that in a moment. But first, I want to talk about this seasonal crisis, the fact that people are coming now. Mexico's president said earlier this week that President Biden's immigration policy changes contributed to this latest surge. And that is what we do hear from some migrants as well. People say, I heard the border was open. Do you accept that the fact of a new administration promising a new approach is part of the reason people are coming?

GONZALEZ: Well, you have two philosophically, fundamentally different approaches to migration. You know, the previous administration that had kind of a fortress America approach ignored our international humanitarian obligations and felt a wall was a solution, even though migrants and drugs actually enter our country through points of entry. What the president has put forward is an approach that both enforces U.S. law but also recognizes that we're a nation of immigrants and that we have international humanitarian obligations that we should uphold and that we can both manage migration responsibly and with dignity, enforce our borders and address migration at the source. That's the proposal that he's putting forward. And it actually is something that is much more consistent with our values. So I think if you if you're a migrant that is desperate and you have, you know, one former president who has used a very hard-line approach and another one that is saying, you know what, I'm actually going to treat migrants with dignity, but I am going to enforce U.S. law to make sure the border is migrated, then that is definitely a change.

But it's not the reason why people are migrating. You have in Guatemala - and again, I've lived in these communities. Infant mortality rate is superhigh. Teachers show up maybe once a week. There are no paved roads. There are no opportunities. And so young men, fathers with children, families, they see no other alternative, you know, but they are risking their lives to come here because they're fleeing either economic hardship or the threat of gang violence or, you know, as I said, femicide at a high rate in El Salvador.

INSKEEP: Well, let's be fair about this. It is absolutely true that there was a surge of migrants in 2019 during the Trump administration with very different messaging and very different policies. People do seem to come for the reasons that they come. And the attitude of the United States is at most one of the factors, although some people do cite the new administration. But let's talk about what you're discussing here, Mr. Gonzalez. You're saying the problem needs to be addressed at the source. How does the United States do that?

GONZALEZ: Well, I mean, it's challenging, right? Political will is a huge element of that because I mentioned most of the communities migrating are often the most marginalized. You have, frankly, a predatory elite that benefits from the status quo, which is to not pay any taxes or invest in social programs. The migration is essentially a social - a release valve, migrants and remittances that drive consumption in these countries...

INSKEEP: I want to stop you for a second. You just said - I want to stop to make sure - you said predatory elite. You're talking about the people who run Central American countries like Guatemala, correct?

GONZALEZ: So I think that there's a - there is a concentration of wealth among a very small group. I'll give you an example. Guatemala has probably the lowest effective tax rate in the entire Western Hemisphere. After the peace accords were signed, it called for an increase in taxes. The private sector sued to strike those down. These - a lot of these reforms that are fundamental to expand opportunity, create access to education, address insecurity, are ones that often go against the political interests of of leaders in power. I'll give you an example. When the president was vice president, he was a strong and staunch supporter of anti-corruption initiatives. The U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission in Guatemala was one that actually ended up landing a president in jail because he was embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from the Guatemalan people. And so corruption is a central driver of migration in all three countries. And it's something that is very, very challenging to tackle because there is a small group of factors that benefit from corruption.

INSKEEP: Well, how on Earth, then, do you do that? And I ask this in a particular way for a particular reason. You were part of the Obama administration, which also tried to focus on improving conditions in Central American countries and committed billions of dollars to that end, which seems not to have worked. It is hard to spend money from abroad in a country where the government, as you say, as the people in charge, aren't as interested in the efforts as you are. And now you have a new administration. Is the Biden administration talking about doing the same thing again?

GONZALEZ: No. So, I mean, the program to be - you know, to be fair, we were implementing it for a year, but we were seeing results. There are studies by the Center for Global Development that demonstrated that U.S. investments in, you know, kind of a holistic approach, place-based strategies to address insecurity led to drops in violence in El Salvador, which led to drops in migration. So we were seeing results and then the Trump administration came in and cut a lot of those programs. But you're right that no amount of money will make an impact without, A, political will, without buy-in from a broader sector of the private sector, from, you know, stakeholders and civil society to really take ownership and help shape these sorts of programs. There are things we did very well, and there are things that we're going to improve. And the vice president, who - Vice President Harris, who has now been announced as somebody who's going to play a role in Mexico in the Northern Triangle, is actually asking all the right questions, is driving us to really have a much more partnership-based approach to work with foundations, with other countries, to try to make sure that there is a sustainable kind of partnership to address some of these challenges and to pressure these governments to make decisions and reforms that are fundamental to economic opportunity and to addressing insecurity and to creating the transparency necessary to address the root causes of migration.

INSKEEP: Can you really pressure elites from outside of a Central American country when, as you have just said, they just don't see the world the way you do, they don't see their interests in the way you do?

GONZALEZ: There are carrots and sticks that we can use. I think carrots are that - you know, companies like Walmart, I'll give an example, are some of the largest investors in this region. And so, you know, you want to help these countries create the right environment for international investment that drives economic prosperity. So that's a carrot. In terms of sticks, the president during the campaign - and we're actually working to implement this now under the vice president's leadership - is committed to developing a regional anti-corruption task force. There are a lot of things that the United States and its partners can do to impose sanctions, to pull visas, to freeze assets of individuals involved in money laundering. I will say, though, you know, the president had a conversation with the Guatemalan president, Alejandro Giammattei, not too long ago. And there was a commitment there to actually combat drug trafficking, to combat corruption, to address money laundering. And so, you know, the president's going to take him at his word, and we're going to try to seek areas of collaboration with whatever leader's ready to rise to the political crisis at hand.

INSKEEP: Is this, at best, a years-long effort that is likely to take the whole of the Biden administration, however long that might be?

GONZALEZ: It's a generations-long effort. And assistance programs, I think, can have short-term impact. But really to address migration so that we're not doing this every season is going to require a sustained approach. And so we have to approach this from a bipartisan perspective, the same way that then-Vice President Biden did on the Hill engaging Republicans and Democrats. We have to make sure that civil society and the private sector have bought into this. We have to make sure that our regional partners and European partners are partners in this cause and are focused on it for the long term.

INSKEEP: Mr. Gonzalez, a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

GONZALEZ: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Juan Gonzalez is special assistant to the president and the National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere. He's just been traveling in Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.