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How did President Biden's administration get into a bind on immigration?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How did President Biden's administration get into a bind on immigration? House Republicans impeached Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security, who is responsible for immigration policy. Biden's leading opponent, Donald Trump, promises mass deportations. Growing numbers of migrants overwhelm the system, and Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, bused many to cities in blue states where some Democratic mayors blamed the president for the chaos.

A former member of Biden's administration walked us through how the administration handled the border up to now. Jason Houser was chief of staff for Immigration and Customs Enforcement until last year. He says that as president, Biden eventually changed some of his predecessor's policies. But Houser contends the main change was the number of people showing up at the border.

JASON HOUSER: Steve, I mean, the biggest difference between the previous pre-COVID numbers that the Trump administration saw and what President Biden and the Secretary were dealing with really is the drastic increase in Cuban, Venezuelan and Colombian migrants. You know, with Cubans leaving the economic and political tensions that happen in communist Cuba and sort of the humanitarian, political and economic instability that was occurring in Venezuela, that is where the bulk of that growth has come from.

INSKEEP: If memory serves, this administration and some past administrations have gone around country to country trying to improve conditions or trying to find ways for people to apply for asylum at the embassy rather than making a thousands-of-miles trip north. None of that seems to have worked or worked sufficiently.

HOUSER: No, I would agree with you, Steve. And I think the biggest challenge is, you know, there is crises - political, humanitarian and economic - across the Western Hemisphere. And, you know, there's not just the asylum-seekers and the migrants that we've seen coming to the United States, but there's millions more across the hemisphere. And enforcement or detention here without addressing the entire continuum itself is just going to continue to kind of fail if we continue to look through it through that lens.

INSKEEP: I want to back up just a little bit and talk about Secretary Mayorkas' response to this. Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, has now been impeached, in part because his department paroled people into the United States - meaning that there were too many people to detain, it was going to be a long time until their court hearing, so they were let loose on parole and told to come back for their court date. Is that a common thing for administrations to do?

HOUSER: You know, parole has been used, you know, in a lot of different mechanisms, whether it's dealing with humanitarian issues where people may need to seek their doctor, where - you may also see other mechanisms where border patrol and our customs officials have been able to utilize parole over time. There was an expansion of the use of that authority. That's a law enforcement tool that they use for both the decompression and the ability to safely and humanely and orderly move people into both ICE custody and others away from the border. And the less time that Border Patrol agents are caught in administrative processing of asylum-seekers, and they are moved into the process, that allows Border Patrol to focus on their mission. And that disincentivizes the smugglers and transiters in Mexico from pushing those larger populations and overwhelming Border Patrol.

INSKEEP: Are you saying patrolling people allows border agents to turn their attention back to stopping those who may be coming?

HOUSER: That's exactly what I'm saying, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is a thing that I didn't know until I read a long New Yorker magazine account of the immigration debate. It seems there was an idea within the administration at one time that the United States should be busing people, that if it were done in a sensible and orderly way rather than a politically destructive way, that there actually were cities that would like extra workers that might take in migrants if they had work permits and it was done in an orderly way. What was that discussion like?

HOUSER: Yeah, Steve, there was a great deal of deliberation concerning what that sort of process should be. And we did look at the ability to, if we were able to, whether by bus or by plane, move a couple thousand noncitizens a day, process them legally through the normal Border Patrol processes - do background checks, etc. - and then transit them into cities where there's more capacity. That would be like a force multiplier to provide for capacity that would more humanely bring and orderly bring migrants into these cities. And that allows both ICE agents to continue to do their mission and keeps Border Patrol focused on their missions. But we did not.

INSKEEP: What would you have the administration do now?

HOUSER: Right now, I think the biggest challenge that the administration is facing is the White House's need to see this not just as a border crisis itself, but bringing that whole of government approach and giving an immigration - whether czar or coordinator at the White House the ability to sort of oversee the entire process and not just looking through it through the lens of, what can domestic law enforcement and border policy do to deter or mitigate the push factors of migrants leaving their homes and very dangerous situations in some of these countries?

INSKEEP: In a political sense, is it too late for all that because now we're in an election year and anything that anybody does is going to be over-interpreted and resisted?

HOUSER: You know, I can understand that thought. But I think, you know, if the White House and the administration were to move really aggressively now and sort of what I consider - take sort of the bipartisan - look at what happened with the bipartisan bill in the Senate. They have an avenue here to really lead, determine what the overall goals and objectives is and figure out, like, how do they see the immigration system working more effectively.

And this is the part that I carry with me every day now, is the secretary was sort of radical in his pro-law enforcement and rule of law direction to his staff every day. I saw that every day. But at the same time, you can be pro-law enforcement and also be pro-immigrant and pro-migrant in a way that allowing migrants to exercise, under the law, our asylum and refugee programs. And if you stay centered there, I think that the administration could have some success.

INSKEEP: I just want to underline something that you said there, because this man has been impeached for allegedly deliberately defying the law. You just said that he was pro-law enforcement in a radical way. What do you mean by that?

HOUSER: What I mean is, every day, Secretary Mayorkas' directions were very clear. And that was based around the rule of law, based around what the rank-and-file leadership, civilian leadership need. And that was constantly his focus.

INSKEEP: Jason Houser served in the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama and Biden administrations and is now at George Mason University. By the way, the White House says President Biden will travel to the border city of Brownsville, Texas, on Thursday to promote his approach to the border on the same day that his Republican rival Donald Trump is expected to speak in Eagle Pass, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOGWAI'S "GOLDEN PORSCHE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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