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The White House is dropping COVID border restrictions. Republicans want them to stay

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Biden administration's decision last week to drop border restrictions that were put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a lot of fallout in Washington. A COVID aid bill the president says is crucial to dealing with the next phase of this pandemic has been stalled as Republicans try to force the CDC to keep the restrictions known as Title 42 in place. Now some Senate Democrats are joining Republicans.

To sort out the reality of what is happening at the border and all of the politics surrounding it, we're joined now by NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration, and NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House. Hey to both of you.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. OK. So Joel, could you just briefly explain more about what exactly Title 42 does and why the administration wants to get rid of it now?

ROSE: Sure. Title 42 is a public health measure, at least officially, that was originally put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a little over two years ago to stop the spread of COVID-19. And it allowed immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants at the southern border without giving them a chance to ask for asylum under U.S. law. Now the CDC is saying that Title 42 is no longer necessary to protect public health.

The Biden administration says there is a plan for what will happen when it is set to end on May 23. It involves more personnel and other resources going to the border. You know, clearly, the administration is hoping to avoid some of the chaotic situations that we saw last year, but it is bracing for what it calls a significant influx of migrants at the border.

CHANG: And Mara, I know that Republicans have been outraged at Biden over this, but now some Democrats are joining them to push for keeping Title 42 in place. What's going on here?

LIASSON: That's right. Five Senate Democrats, most of them moderates, joined a group of Republicans to introduce a measure that would force the administration to keep Title 42 until it presented a plan to Congress about how they would deal with a spike in border crossings. Now, Democrats are worried that the administration doesn't have a good enough plan to stop a surge. The White House says it's surging resources to the border. It's sending the message now is not the time to come. But of course, they sent that message last year, and there was still a spring surge.

But what's significant about the Democrats who are joining in with Republicans is at least two of them are up for re-election this year - New Hampshire's Maggie Hassan and Arizona's Mark Kelly. And they know that immigration, along with inflation and crime, are top issues for voters. And they're afraid that the Democrats are on the wrong side of this issue.

CHANG: Meanwhile, Joel, people have been making some pretty extreme claims about the impact of lifting Title 42. What do we know about how it's worked so far?

ROSE: Well, immigrant advocates and some Democrats say it's failed, both as public health policy and as immigration policy. I mean, they note that we've seen record numbers of arrests at the border, even with Title 42 in place. They would argue that's because migrants are often fleeing from violence and poverty in their home countries, and they're not really paying much attention to U.S. border policy. But Republicans are using words like chaos and Armageddon. They warn that lifting Title 42 will allow more fentanyl and other drugs into the country on the backs of migrants. Here's Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana, speaking at a congressional hearing yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAY HIGGINS: Carrying drugs backpack at a time in our country. Where do those guys go? They went deep into America, to a neighborhood near you.

ROSE: But the reality is that the vast majority of fentanyl and other drugs come through ports of entry, hidden in commercial trucks or in private vehicles. That was true before Title 42, and the data on drug seizures suggests that it was the case during Title 42 as well.

CHANG: And Mara, what would you say are the political stakes for Biden going forward on this issue?

LIASSON: Well, they're pretty high. I mean, Joel just described the reality, but I cover politics. And don't forget, this wasn't just Trump's first issue when he rode down the escalator and announced his candidacy by talking about murderers and rapists coming over the southern border. It's also become the biggest issue that Republicans have. And this really shows us how broken the debate over immigration is.

For years, Congress and the presidents haven't been able to agree on comprehensive immigration reform, how to meet the country's need for immigrant labor, a need that's growing by the year, at the same time that you have a secure, orderly border. Instead of having a comprehensive solution, we've had a completely politicized, weaponized debate about immigration. And Democrats are worried it's really going to hurt them this year.

CHANG: That is NPR's Mara Liasson and Joel Rose. Thanks to both of you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.