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Pressure Is Building On Biden To Do More For Asylum-Seekers And Migrants

President Biden speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on July 21 after returning from a trip to Cincinnati.
Susan Walsh
President Biden speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on July 21 after returning from a trip to Cincinnati.

Updated July 26, 2021 at 9:00 PM ET

President Biden is in a tough place on immigration.

On one side, he faces growing pressure from supporters who want his administration to stop turning away asylum-seekers — and to invest more political capital on creating a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

On the other side, critics want him to do more to stop what has turned into the largest wave of migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border in recent history, with border agents averaging 6,300 encounters with migrants every day last month.

It's against this backdrop that Biden spoke Monday to the nation's largest Latino advocacy organization, UnidosUS.

In prerecorded remarks, Biden promised to continue to fight for undocumented Americans. "My administration will always have your back," he declared.

Some of Biden's supporters, like Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum, hoped his speech would be directed at not just his base, but more broadly to the American people — particularly to swing voters who are concerned about migration yet recognize the value of immigrants in their communities.

"This has to be a speech to suburban families, to rural families, who are asking questions of, 'OK, as a nation, are we going to be safe and secure under the Biden administration?" Noorani said. "'And are we going to be able to treat the immigrants who I've come to know and love through church, through work, through school — are we going to treat them compassionately?' "

Noorani said Biden needs the backing of a much broader swath of Americans if he wants to build the support he needs to address immigration issues.

In his less-than-two-minute remarks, Biden did not address border security.

He instead spoke about protecting vulnerable immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, as well as fighting for a pathway to citizenship for much of the larger community of 11 million undocumented immigrants.

He also thanked advocates affiliated with UnidosUS as well as the broader Latino community for stepping up during their pandemic to help Americans get through the health crisis.

"Six months ago, our nation was reeling from a once-in-a-century health crisis, a once-in-a-generation economic crisis, both of which brought disproportionate heartache to Latino families," Biden said.

Supporters want more action on immigration promises

Since taking office, Biden has followed through on several campaign promises, including stopping construction on the southern border wall. He ended a Trump administration program that required asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as they waited for their cases to be heard. And he created a task force to reunite immigrant children and parents who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants has gone almost nowhere. Smaller legislative packages that would protect farm workers and younger immigrants brought to the country illegally as children have also stalled.

Finding a way to protect those younger immigrants has become even more important to Biden's supporters after a federal judge in Texas ruled this month that the program created to protect them was unconstitutional.

The administration has vowed to appeal the decision and also supports efforts by Democratic lawmakers to try fold the issue into a massive budget reconciliation package this summer.

In the past week, however, Biden has twice questioned whether the Senate rules would allow such a move.

Supporters want the asylum system restored

In Monday's remarks, Biden did not address the fate of a Trump-era pandemic rule that has been kept in place, allowing his administration to quickly turn away tens of thousands of people seeking asylum.

That rule, known as Title 42, has angered some supporters who see it less as a public health measure and more of a convenient way to deter migration and keep political opponents at bay.

"One of the most damaging legacies from the Trump administration is the goalposts were moved in such a way that we further limited the rights of asylum-seekers and migrants at the border," said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute.

"And if we don't have the political courage to at least restore the modicum of rights that asylum-seekers have at the border, the moving of those goalposts and the eroding of those rights will be the new normal," he said.

Pandemic relief a focus

Those attending the virtual conference were, of course, also interested in what Biden had to say about pandemic relief.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Latino families, said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, deputy vice president of policy and advocacy at UnidosUS.

"While immigration packs a powerful punch and it is incredibly important for Latinos, we care deeply about the economy and jobs," Martinez said. "We care deeply about how we're going to recover from the pandemic and about health care, particularly the cost of health care, and all of those things are interconnected and they also intersect with the most vulnerable among us who are immigrants and the undocumented."

There are obvious political reasons to address the fastest-growing population in the country.

Matt Barreto, a Democratic pollster who advised the Biden campaign, said political parties need to engage with the community well ahead of elections, noting the large number of first-time voters who are Latino.

"Because of that churn of new citizens and young people, you can't take the Latino vote for granted," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.