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Politics Chat: Biden's Immigration Challenge


President Biden returns to the White House today. He met there with the Japanese prime minister Friday and then went home to Delaware for the weekend. He's returning to a problem that's proven to be particularly troublesome - immigration. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been looking into it and joins us now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Biden promised to deal with immigration and sent a bill to Congress which passed the House and rests now with the Senate committee. But the politics aren't waiting for the policy on this issue.

LIASSON: No, this is the issue that Biden has had the most trouble handling since he came into office. It's not clear whether the White House misunderstood or underestimated how a new president with a more welcoming policy on immigration than his predecessor's - predecessor would be received by people desperate to come to the U.S. So you had this huge surge of unaccompanied minors at the border for which the administration seemed unprepared. Now you have a second problem - a second immigration problem with the confusion over the refugee cap - the number of refugees - that's people coming in through a separate system that Biden said he would raise.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's talk about that back-and-forth on refugees that the administration made because those coming over the southern border who may also be fleeing persecution have not been vetted in the same way as refugees who are brought in through a formal pipeline of international organizations like the U.N. You know, the southern border asylum seekers make their claim through the U.S. courts after they've crossed. So two different things.

LIASSON: Two different things. A lot of these refugees have already been vetted. They're sitting in refugee camps around the world - North Africa, the Middle East - just waiting for a plane ticket. Some of them are Iraqis or Afghanis who were translators that helped the U.S. military. Biden said he'd raise the cap from a very low 15,000 that Trump had placed to 62,500, but then he said that he couldn't raise the cap. He got a lot of pushback from refugee advocates, so he walked that back and he said that, on May 15, he'll be announcing a new cap. So a lot of confusion. Biden's learning it's a lot harder to fulfill a campaign promise than to make one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if Biden's handling of immigration writ large and the specific issue of refugees hasn't been, I guess, much of a success so far - or at least it's causing him problems - how damaging has it been politically?

LIASSON: Well, that is unclear. Right now, Republicans are focusing on the southern border. They feel this is a political issue that works well with their base. They are attacking Biden for, they say, letting all sorts of horrible people across the border - people with COVID, people who might be terrorists. But the political problem around refugees is coming from inside the Democratic coalition. These are advocates for refugees who say that Biden is walking back his campaign promise. They're saying he's waffling. So he's really being hit by two sides, by - from the right about the unaccompanied child surge at the border and then from the left because of this confusion around the refugee cap.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it seems to be specifically emboldening congressional Republicans, like Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene. What do you make of her attempt at an America First caucus?

LIASSON: Yeah, this is a strange story. She and - along with a couple other Republicans have created this thing called the American First (ph) Caucus. It seems to have a white identity mission. They talked about wanting to return to an architectural style that befits the, quote, "progeny of European architecture." They also said that mass immigration, not just illegal immigration, threatens, quote, "the long-term existential future of America as a unique country with a unique culture and unique identity." Not quite sure what that means since America's unique culture was made by immigrants from all over the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I think it's pretty clear what it means.

LIASSON: Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah. It got some pushback from the Republican leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, who tweeted that the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, not nativist dog whistles. That's the kind of criticism you usually hear of Republicans from Democrats. So you're seeing some - you know, a party that is going through an identity crisis, whether it wants to be a white identity party or something bigger.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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