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How Biden's asylum restriction has changed things at the border with Mexico

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Right now, on the southern U.S. border, most migrants seeking asylum at ports of entry are being turned back. This comes just two days after the implementation of President Biden's executive action intended to stop illegal crossings into the U.S. The Biden administration says border enforcement agencies are severely underfunded, and agents are overwhelmed. But now, immigration agents will be able to determine more quickly whether a migrant has a legal basis to remain in the country. With us now to explain is NPR's Sergio Martinez-Beltran, who covers immigration. Hi, Sergio.

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so how exactly is this rule changing what immigration officials do at the border?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Right. So the stated goal of this rule is to expedite screenings and removals. And Border Patrol agents who are already on the frontlines will play a key role in meeting this goal. But it doesn't drastically change what agents have been doing all this time. That's what Rodney Scott, who served as the chief of the Border Patrol under former President Trump and President Biden, says.

RODNEY SCOTT: So Border Patrol specifically - their job is to make sure that no one sneaks into our national home in between the ports of entry. So regardless of what that person claims later, what their nationality is, how tall they are, you know, it's all irrelevant. They cross the border illegally. Border Patrol has to respond, has to take them into custody, fingerprint them, take some biographical information and then process them administratively.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: The one thing that is new is that in the past, an immigration official would ask a migrant whether they feared persecution or torture if they were to be deported. Now, agents won't have to ask that. The burden would fall on immigrants. They'd have to manifest a fear of persecution, and the new rules also raises the criteria to demonstrate credible fear.

CHANG: OK, but the Biden administration says that this new policy could help ease the burden - right? - on Border Patrol agents. Can you just explain their side of all of this?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Right. I mean, the southern border has seen a high number of asylum-seekers over the last few years. And that has meant that Border Patrol agents have had to spend hours processing all those claims. I talked to Victor Manjarrez, the former chief patrol agent of the El Paso and Tucson sectors. He served under Democratic and Republican administrations. And he says this could be the one thing that can free up Border Patrol agents to pay attention to illegal crossings and drug trafficking.

VICTOR MANJARREZ: So the processing time, if the asylum number is capped, goes down for the agents. And you have the ability to go back on the field. That's the problem right now.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: The executive order kicks in when encounters with unauthorized migrants at the border reach an average of 2,500 in a week. Only migrants with exceptional circumstances - unaccompanied minors and victims of severe forms of trafficking - would be allowed to claim asylum.

CHANG: And just to be clear, Sergio, this rule - it doesn't shut down the border - right? - or eliminate asylum?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Right.

CHANG: Right.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: It does not.

CHANG: Yeah.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Biden says the U.S. will continue to honor international agreements, and migrants could still claim asylum. They just have to get an appointment via the CBP One app, something that's pretty hard. It's a lottery system, and there are only about 1,500 appointments a day.

CHANG: Well, I am curious. What have the people you've talked to said about putting a cap on illegal crossings? Like, do they think it will help achieve what the Biden administration wants here?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Well, they are skeptical about how effective that could be. Manjarrez and immigrant rights advocates say the cap will push migrants to more remote areas in order to skirt Border Patrol agents. And in the hot summer months, when temperatures reaches over a hundred degrees, that could result in deaths.

CHANG: Yeah.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: And that could pose an additional challenge for the government.

CHANG: That is NPR immigration correspondent Sergio Martinez-Beltran. Thank you so much, Sergio.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: You're welcome. 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.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán (SARE-he-oh mar-TEE-nez bel-TRAHN) is an immigration correspondent based in Texas.