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Biden's executive actions on immigration reflect recent shifts in politics


This month, President Biden announced several executive actions on immigration - week to week, sending very different messages. The first message - turn back.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today, I'm announcing actions to bar migrants who cross our Southern border unlawfully from receiving asylum. Migrants...

FLORIDO: In early June, he severely restricted asylum requests from migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border with no authorization.


BIDEN: This ban will remain in place until the number of people trying to enter illegally is reduced to a level that our system can effectively manage.

FLORIDO: But two weeks later, addressing a different group of immigrants, the president struck a more welcoming tone.


BIDEN: ...For the best generations have been renewed, revitalized and refreshed by the talent, the skill, the hard work, the courage and determination of immigrants coming to our country. Look, the...

FLORIDO: In a second set of executive actions, Biden said he'd protect hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, those married to U.S. citizens.


BIDEN: For those wives or husbands and their children who have lived in America for a decade or more but are undocumented, this action will allow them to file paperwork for legal status in the United States, allow them to work while they remain with their families in the United States. Let's be clear...

FLORIDO: Two sets of executive actions, two very different approaches to immigration policy. NPR immigration correspondent Sergio Martínez-Beltrán spoke with Alejandro Paz Medrano. He's originally from Mexico but lives in Pennsylvania. He's been in the U.S. for almost 20 years while married to his wife, Erin, who's a U.S. citizen.

ALEJANDRO PAZ MEDRANO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Medrano says every day, he kisses his wife before going to work, not knowing if it'll be their last kiss. He says getting protection would change the couple's life. To some immigration advocates, that is a reason to celebrate. Other experts are tempering expectations about the actual impact of this policy. Erica Schommer is a law professor at St. Mary's University's Immigration and Human Rights Law Clinic in San Antonio, Texas. She told NPR that immigrants will be protected on a case-by-case basis, so not every spouse of a U.S. citizen will qualify.

ERICA SCHOMMER: This is not some sort of blanket amnesty that's just going to automatically overnight convert a whole bunch of people into residents or citizens.

FLORIDO: President Biden says he can secure the Southern border and help some immigrant families already here. There are big shifts in policy that reflect recent shifts in politics, all in an election year when immigration is front and center. To help us understand President Biden's recent executive actions on immigration, we called on Jasmine Garsd, NPR's immigration correspondent. Hey, Jasmine.


FLORIDO: Jasmine, for those who haven't been following this closely, I want to break down the two executive actions. So let's start with the first one, which Biden signed early this month. What did it do?

GARSD: Yeah, so that first one now makes it almost impossible for most migrants who cross the border to request asylum. And, as you know, large numbers of people have been doing that, and they're often allowed to stay in the U.S. while their cases move forward. And this surge is something that Republicans have really seized on to criticize the president.

So what the executive action means is people who do that, people who cross the border to ask for asylum, for the most part, will now be fast-tracked for deportation, which has gotten a lot of criticism from humanitarian groups. Civil rights groups are suing, saying that under U.S. law, migrants have a right to ask for asylum, no matter how they came in.

FLORIDO: OK, so that was earlier this month. And then just a few days ago, the president announced another executive action, which really couldn't be more different from that first one. What was it?

GARSD: Right. That one is aimed at helping certain undocumented immigrants who are already in the U.S. So those who are married to a U.S. citizen and have been in the country for at least 10 years will now have an easier pathway towards getting a green card.

FLORIDO: Jas, I think a lot of people assume that if you marry a U.S. citizen, you already have, like, a pretty easy path to a green card.

GARSD: Yeah, I hear this all the time. And I partly blame Hollywood because this trope is always in movies and TV shows, you know, where an immigrant needs to stay in the U.S., so they marry a citizen. That's not entirely true. People who cross the border undocumented and marry a U.S. citizen, if they want a green card, first, they have to leave the U.S. and can't return for up to 10 years before they can come back. And that's a long time to be separated from their families.

So with this new executive action, the president is saying they will be allowed to pursue a green card without having to leave the country, and they can get a work permit while they do that. Now, the president's actions also do a couple of other things. They protect those people's undocumented children and provide quicker work visas for a limited group of undocumented immigrants who graduated from a college in the U.S.

FLORIDO: So you've just described a president who, on the one hand, is authorizing an immigration crackdown at the border and, on the other hand, is offering protections for possibly hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. It seems like mixed messaging. What is going on here?

GARSD: Well, I think that mixed messaging you're noticing is intentional. I mean, it's an election year. It's projected to be a close election, and one of the big issues is immigration. It's a centerpiece of former President Donald Trump's campaign. It's what Republicans accuse Biden of being weak on, and even the Democratic Party has shifted further to the right on immigration in recent years. So Biden is balancing that political reality with the knowledge that he can't afford to alienate immigrant communities and many Latino voters. Here's what he said earlier this week.


BIDEN: I also refuse to believe that for us to continue to be America that embraces immigration, we have to give up securing our border. They're false choices. We can both secure the border and provide legal pathways to citizenship.

FLORIDO: Jas, you can definitely hear the balance he's trying to strike there.

GARSD: Yeah, but this political strategy of cracking down while also giving protections is not new at all. So back in the 1980s, President Reagan passed IRCA, which created the infrastructure to punish people who employed undocumented immigrants, but it also granted amnesty for most undocumented immigrants in America at the time. And even just 12 years ago, you had President Obama created DACA, which protected many undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Around the same time, advocates nicknamed him the Deporter in Chief (ph). So there's actually a long tradition of presidents balancing these two different approaches to immigration.

FLORIDO: Jasmine, this protection that the president is offering to the undocumented spouses and stepchildren of U.S. citizens, what impact is that going to have on families?

GARSD: Well, this could be a life-changer for about half a million undocumented people. You know, I've spoken to a lot of folks who are in these mixed-status families, and they told me about having to always have a plan B their whole lives - you know, what to do in case Mom or Dad doesn't come home from work because they got picked up and deported. I spoke to Rebecca Shi of the American Business Immigration Coalition. And growing up, her father and her were citizens, but her mom was undocumented. And she told me this anecdote about a time her mom got rear-ended. She got in a fender bender.

REBECCA SHI: She just ran, and it was the other guy's fault that hit her car in the behind. And she just ran. She ran two miles and called me, and I had to go over and find the car and then try to find her later, right?

GARSD: She was scared of the cops showing up and getting deported, so she just ran away. And, you know, Adrian, I just heard stories like these over and over again.

FLORIDO: This move by the president is being described by some people as a watershed historical moment in immigration. Do you think that's accurate?

GARSD: It is the most substantive thing a president has done to protect immigrants since Obama announced DACA in 2012, but I think it's complicated. I'm at the border right now, and I can tell you there is still a humanitarian crisis. The only difference now is people who are desperate cannot ask for asylum, and a lot of people think that's a travesty. On the other hand, a lot of immigrants have told me they are thrilled that the president has taken the lead on protecting undocumented spouses and children.

And I've also heard from people who say, you know what? Why didn't he do this sooner? He's been in office for four years. They see this as purely for political gain during an election year and that at the end of the day, it's going to help less than 1% of the U.S.'s undocumented population. About 10 million people who are undocumented in America won't benefit from this at all. So what about them?

FLORIDO: Jasmine Garsd, thanks for joining us today.

GARSD: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.