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Biden is taking action to temporarily close the Southern border to asylum-seekers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the southern border, things are different this morning. That's because President Biden has signed an executive order that restricts migrants from seeking asylum there. It allows officials to temporarily stop processing asylum claims when the number of unauthorized daily crossings surge, as is the case right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We must face a simple truth - to protect America as a land that welcomes immigrants, we must first secure the border, and secure it now.

MARTIN: That's the president speaking from the White House yesterday, alongside lawmakers from border states, and the secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, is on the line with us now to tell us more. Mr. Secretary, welcome back to the program. Good morning.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Good morning, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Thank you for coming. So why now?

MAYORKAS: Well, we have been asking and imploring Congress to pass bipartisan legislation now for months. It has had two opportunities to do so, and before the opportunity to pass a very important bipartisan piece of legislation, we also asked Congress, and implored Congress, to properly fund our department and the other departments that are involved in the administration of our immigration laws. That Senate legislation would have been the most dramatic and toughest change to our border enforcement laws in decades.

MARTIN: I know. So they rejected that a couple of weeks ago; the Republicans walked away from it, allegedly because the former President Trump asked them to do so. So again - why now?

MAYORKAS: Well, it is our responsibility to deliver for the American people when Congress fails to do so. The executive action that the president has taken is no substitute for legislation, but we will do whatever we can within our legal authorities, and that is precisely what we have done.

MARTIN: To that question, President Biden is using the same part of the law that former President Trump used in 2017 and 2018. Both those efforts were blocked by the courts; the ACLU has already said it's going to challenge the law. Why do you think this plan will survive a similar lawsuit?

MAYORKAS: Well, this plan is quite different than what the former president issued, Michel. The former president had no exceptions to the bar on asylum. What we have done is not only established exceptions - for example, unaccompanied children will not be subject to the asylum bar - but, very, very importantly, this executive action has taken in the context of all of the lawful pathways that we have built for individuals to lawfully, safely and, in an orderly way, apply for asylum and gain the benefit of humanitarian relief in this country, whether it is through our CBP One application at the ports of entry that allows 1,400-1,500 people each day to access humanitarian relief in the United States; whether it's our parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans that allows up to 30,000 individuals per month to access our asylum system. This is markedly different than what the prior administration promulgated.

MARTIN: And to those questions, why those numbers? And this new order kicks in, as I understand it, when the seven-day daily average is more than 2,500 people. You, and other members of the administration, have been complaining for some time now that you just don't have the infrastructure to process sort of this many people, so why that number? How does this fix that?

MAYORKAS: Look, Michel, we set the numbers according - really as a proxy for what our capabilities permit, based on the resources that we have. We are fundamentally under-resourced as a department, which is why, in August of last year - in October of last year, the president submitted a significant supplemental funding bill that Congress failed to act upon, why the bipartisan Senate legislation provided for such robust resources for our department and the Departments of State and Justice. We are perennially underfunded, and we need to be resourced, and our people deserve to be resourced.

MARTIN: And unfortunately, I'm going to have to go back to my first question - just - I still don't think I've heard an answer here. The presidential election is five months away. Immigration is obviously a major concern for voters. What do you say to those who say that they think this is political maneuvering; it's about trying to sort of look tough on immigration to appeal to people who are worried about it?

MAYORKAS: I would respectfully and vehemently disagree. On day one of his administration, the president presented Congress with comprehensive immigration reform, a piece of legislation that he implored Congress to act upon. Up until May of last year, we were operating under the public health order of Title 42. We drove the numbers down once that Title 42 order was lifted, despite everyone's expectations that pandemonium would ensue. We implored Congress thereafter to fund this department and the immigration system. We then worked on bipartisan legislation. Congress has failed to act as recently as two weeks ago, and this executive action was taken. We have been steadfast in our efforts to secure the border within our executive authorities, and we need Congress to fix what everyone agrees is a fundamentally broken immigration system. And only Congress can deliver the enduring solution.

MARTIN: That is the secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas. Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us once again.

MAYORKAS: Thank you, Michel. 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.

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.