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Biden Grapples With The Influx Of Migrants At The Southwestern U.S. Border


A growing influx of Central American migrants coming to the U.S. border - thousands of unaccompanied teens and children in U.S. custody, some held in jail-like facilities. More likely on the way. This is the urgent situation facing President Biden at the border today and an echo of the one he faced as vice president back in 2014. His approach so far is similar - focus on the root causes. Today, he sent three top officials to Mexico and Guatemala to discuss how to manage the increasing numbers of people trying to reach the U.S. Joining us to talk more about this is Franco Ordoñez, NPR's White House correspondent.

And, Franco, first tell us just the basics of this trip to Mexico.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Well, I think this is a trip that really shows how urgent the situation really is. Most of the migrants to the U.S. border are from three Central American countries. Now, Mexico had been working with the former administration to keep them from making that journey through Mexico, but that largely stopped. Biden is now sending two top officials from the National Security Council and another from the State Department to the region. Roberta Jacobson - she will be leading talks with Mexico's foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, and other top Mexican officials. She was actually an ambassador to Mexico during the Obama administration. And she'll be joined by Juan Gonzalez, the NSC's senior director for the region. Now, they'll be talking about how to manage the situation and also be exploring a joint development strategy for Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries, you know, trying to work together to address the root causes of migration.

CORNISH: Let's take one example - Guatemala. What's on the agenda there?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Gonzalez, again from the NSC, and Ricardo Zuniga from the State Department will travel to Guatemala to meet with presidente - pardon me - President Alejandro Giammattei and his foreign minister, Pedro Brolo, and other economic and security officials. They will also meet with representatives from the private sector and civil society groups. You know, the big picture here is that President Biden feels that security and prosperity in Central America are closely linked to security and prosperity in the United States.

CORNISH: Give us some context here in terms of how Biden weighed in when he was vice president and maybe what he's doing differently this time around as president.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, as vice president, Biden led a similar effort to address the root causes of migration. It was called the Alliance for Prosperity, and it provided a billion dollars to help police training, judicial reform and end corruption. This time around, he wants to offer $4 billion. Now, I talked to Andrew Selee about this. He's the president of the Migration Policy Institute. He said Biden is finding out the hard reality about this challenge that faces all presidents and that it's not easy.

ANDREW SELEE: The border is to immigration politics what the Middle East is to foreign policy. You know, every president comes in determined to do something, focus on a different part of immigration and ends up sucked into the border in some way.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, frankly, Biden now owns this issue and the political fallout in a way that he didn't when he was just the vice president. And one big difference in his approach this time is that the administration is going to be a bit more clear-eyed about the realities of corruption at the highest level of these governments in Central America. The administration says they will only give the money to community and international organizations.

CORNISH: How has the Biden administration responded to criticism from Republicans who are claiming that Biden triggered this influx of migrants by reversing some of the restrictive immigration policies of President Trump's?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it's been a difficult thing to answer. On the one hand, the Biden administration says, look; we're going to have a more humane policy and going to rebuild the asylum system, which was largely dismantled by the former administration. On the other hand, they're saying, don't come now. And there's a sense that that message is a little bit muddied. The White House insists they've been clear. They point to the thousands of radio ads and targeted social media ads in the region that they say have reached millions of people. But the numbers of people coming to the border are still high. And while the administration says that most people are turned away, children are not, and some families are not as well.

CORNISH: And will Biden visit the border?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he said yesterday that he'll go at some point, but there's no sense that that will happen in the near future.

CORNISH: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.