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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is a new trio in town - well, not quite new. President Biden is hosting a meeting with the leaders of two key U.S. allies, Japan and the Philippines.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The meeting is part of an effort by the United States to enhance its long-standing network of alliances and partnerships in the region, partly to counter China.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is with us now from Seoul to fill us in on all this. Anthony, hello.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So who's at this meeting, and what's the agenda?

KUHN: Well, these are the leaders of arguably the closest U.S. allies in Northeast and Southeast Asia, respectively - Japan's prime minister Fumio Kishida and the Philippines' president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. And they've been announcing their own, you know, upgrades to their relationships. Kishida and Biden have talked about upgrading their alliance. Tokyo and Manila have been working to strengthen their military ties. Now, both Japan and the Philippines have territorial disputes with China in the East and South China Seas. And so we, I think, can expect to hear a lot of talk of shared values among democracies, rule of law, freedom of navigation, etc.

MARTIN: So Anthony, what's new about this? I mean, if the U.S. already has these relationships, how is this different?

KUHN: Well, Asia, as a whole, does not have security institutions like NATO. What it has is a system known as hub and spokes. The U.S. is the hub, and it has these individual relationships with countries like Japan and the Philippines. Now, they - other countries like India, Australia and New Zealand - are linking up among themselves in what the U.S. government calls a sort of a lattice network, which they hope will constrain China.

There's also an important economic component to this because Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines need infrastructure - ports, rails, etc. - and whoever does the building makes friends. The U.S. is not really building it in Asia, so Southeast Asian nations have to turn to either Japan or China to do it. In fact, the U.S. is turning to Japan, too, and Biden and Kishida may discuss building a Japanese bullet train line in Texas.

MARTIN: So does this mean that the role of the U.S. in sort of organizing these relationships between the countries is changing?

KUHN: Well, I think it's capitalizing on the networks that are being made among these countries, and it's trying to get everyone to join Team Democracy, so to speak. But many countries in Asia have, for decades, relied on China for their trade and the U.S. for security. But now, with this U.S.-China rivalry, they feel pressure to pick sides, and they don't like it.

I spoke to Aaron Connelly, who's a Singapore-based expert on Southeast Asian politics at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (ph), and he says the big concern among Southeast Asian policymakers is this.

AARON CONNELLY: The traditional role that the United States has played - providing security in a stabilizing way to Southeast Asia - might not be so stabilizing anymore, and so that - the United States' presence in Southeast Asia and its rivalry with China is making Southeast Asia less safe.

KUHN: So President Marcos and Prime Minister Kishida are a bit unusual in that they have picked sides. They've cast their lot with the U.S. while a lot of other countries' leaders are sitting on the fence.

MARTIN: Anthony, before we let you go, how is China reacting to all these moves?

KUHN: Well, they're certainly not backing down, and they continue to use these strong-arm tactics on the Philippines in the South China Sea - bumping into their ships, hitting them with water cannons - but stopping short of a real fight. Their aim seems to be to show that the U.S. is not a reliable ally, and Manila should rely on Beijing instead.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Anthony, thank you.

KUHN: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The European Parliament has passed a new package of laws that could fundamentally change the European Union's migration and asylum policies.

INSKEEP: This news is relevant at a time when the United States is receiving many asylum-seekers and has been debating ways to make it harder for some people to enter and stay. Europe's asylum crisis made news many years ago, creating a sense of a world on the move, and it's taken all this time for leaders to respond. Lawmakers on both the far right and far left oppose the resulting legislation, along with human rights organizations.

MARTIN: Reporter Teri Schultz is in Brussels and is with us now for more. Terri, good morning.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So EU legislators are calling this new migration and asylum pact historic. Tell us what's going to change.

SCHULTZ: That's right. There are 10 different parts to this package, some of them more controversial than others, but all of them very ambitious. So it aims to make it harder for people to come to Europe and stay here if they don't have a valid reason to seek asylum, such as fear of persecution in their homelands. The laws say people will have their claims processed faster on the borders and that they'll be deported faster if it's determined that they're just seeking a better economic situation, for example.

Now, supporters say that will free up resources for those who deserve international protection. It also aims to better share the responsibility for those who arrive, which is, as we've seen, disproportionately felt in those countries along Europe's southern edge, like Greece, Italy and Spain, because it would compel other countries to either take in some of those who are allowed to stay or pay the equivalent of about $20,000 per asylum-seeker.

MARTIN: So take us back, if you would. We mentioned that this was a long time coming. Would you remind us of why these changes were seen as necessary?

SCHULTZ: That's true. As Steve mentioned, the EU has been grappling with these pressures for decades, but it really peaked in 2015, with more than 1.3 million people arriving in the bloc hoping to be granted asylum. And they've been working on this since then. They believe that this package that has just been passed will ease the burden on those front-line states but stay within international law and moral considerations. Here's European Parliament President Roberta Metsola speaking after the package was approved Wednesday.

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ROBERTA METSOLA: We promised a new system that is fair with those eligible for protection, that is firm with those who are not and that is strong against the traffickers and the networks preying on the most vulnerable of people. Tonight we have delivered on that promise.

SCHULTZ: Now Metsola says this won't magically solve every issue overnight, but she called it 10 giant leaps forward, referring to the 10 measures it includes. And you can hear the relief in her voice, as it was very narrowly approved by lawmakers.

MARTIN: Why so? You were telling us that it was actually really touch-and-go at the end? Why so?

SCHULTZ: That's true. No one actually knew whether it would pass right up to the very end, and you could see lots of mistaken guesses on social media. And that's because there were very emotional arguments on all sides. And just before the vote, there was a protest inside the parliament from human rights activists. They were sitting where the public can watch proceedings. Have a listen.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) This pact kills. Vote no. This pact...

SCHULTZ: So if you can't quite understand them, they're saying, this pact kills, vote no, trying to influence lawmakers right up to the end. They were launching paper airplanes with details of people who drowned at sea trying to make it to Europe.

MARTIN: And what about the EU lawmakers who voted no?

SCHULTZ: Some on the far right opposed it, saying their countries will not be pushed into accepting more migrants and asylum-seekers no matter what. And some on the far left said it still doesn't provide enough protection for people who need it nor take enough of the burden off those front-line states. That's the view of Malin Bjork, a Swedish parliamentarian from the left.

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MALIN BJORK: Even in the future, the member states of arrival will be the ones that are responsible. We cannot have a situation where people systematically and in thousands die on the way to seeking protection and refuge in Europe. This doesn't do anything about that.

SCHULTZ: Groups like Amnesty International and Oxfam are very critical, saying the new laws, which include building more detention centers, will lead to greater human suffering.

MARTIN: So when are we likely to see these new laws go into effect? Any chance this package can still be blocked?

SCHULTZ: It's likely to move pretty quickly because we've got elections coming up in the European Parliament and in EU national governments, and the far right uses this issue to great effect. And so I think a lot of politicians will be wanting to show that they've made progress on it and that they're going to make a difference for their citizens.

MARTIN: All right. That is Teri Schultz reporting from Brussels. Teri, thank you.

SCHULTZ: Pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Could fewer high school seniors end up in college next fall because of a form?

INSKEEP: Apparently - the federal student aid form for college known as the FAFSA. The Department of Education launched a new process to apply for financial aid this year which should be simpler, except for all the delays and errors.

MARTIN: NPR higher education correspondent Elissa Nadworny is here to bring us up to date on how it's going. Good morning, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So I take it it's going badly.

NADWORNY: Yes. It has been a very bumpy road for this new FAFSA. So the form didn't come out until about three months after it usually comes out. So essentially, the starting line got pushed way back. And then there were the Education Department's miscalculations and missteps. Some students in mixed-immigration-status families are still having trouble filling out the online form, and it is April. The Education Department says they are working hard and fast to get this fixed and get that data out to colleges.

MARTIN: I understand in the meantime, though, that FAFSA submissions are down - how far down?

NADWORNY: Twenty-seven percent, Michel. That's for high school seniors. And that comes out to about half a million fewer students than the class of 2023. That's all according to the National College Attainment Network, which is using Department of Education data.

MARTIN: And what are the high schools - and, you know, there are also nonprofits that help students...

NADWORNY: Yep.

MARTIN: ...Apply for college. What are they saying about all this?

NADWORNY: Well, they're in emergency mode. They are sounding the alarm. Here's Bill DeBaun with the National College Attainment Network.

BILL DEBAUN: In some parts of the country, we're less than 10 weeks from high school graduation, right? It's not that students can't complete the FAFSA after high school graduation. It's just that, in general, they have less support to do so.

NADWORNY: So I've talked with some families who are planning on filling out the FAFSA - they were just kind of waiting until the chaos was over - and there have been steady gains over the last couple weeks as more and more high school seniors fill it out. But we are, you know, a long way away from getting back up to the levels of the class of 2023.

MARTIN: Well, say more about what the experts think the implications are for all this. I mean, does this have implications for where people go to college or even if they go to college?

NADWORNY: Absolutely. I mean, that - high FAFSA completion numbers have historically meant higher college enrollment numbers come fall. The data shows that high schools with more resources have higher completion numbers, so it is an early indicator that college-going rates might be in trouble, especially for students from more poorly funded schools.

MARTIN: And I understand that college enrollment has been declining, too?

NADWORNY: Exactly. Yes. So the pandemic saw about a million fewer students choose college. Now, last fall, the data showed the beginning of a recovery, but now this.

MARTIN: Is there still time to fill the FAFSA out?

NADWORNY: Absolutely. And high schools and college-access nonprofits - even colleges - are trying to do whatever they can to get students to fill it out. I've seen pizza parties. You know, they're throwing these big community events after school, on weekends, offering students one-on-one help.

Rocio Zamora runs a college access program at a high school in San Diego, and her staff has been putting on weekend FAFSA events.

ROCIO ZAMORA: The support is there, and the messages to complete it are there, but it's more of the fact that the application wasn't ready for them and that leading to frustrations and disappointment and discouragement and just really questioning their plans.

NADWORNY: And the thing is, low-income students need that financial aid offer to make a decision about if they can afford college. I've talked with students who have been accepted to college already, but it's not real until they get that financial aid document, which in many cases hasn't happened yet. And without the full financial picture, students may make preemptive decisions about where to go - to stay closer to home, to go to a less expensive community college - or to say, maybe I'm not going to go to college at all.

MARTIN: All right. That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Elissa, thank you.

NADWORNY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.