RACHEL SCOTT: Horror in Atlanta and a crisis at the border.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MS. SCOTT: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. It’s good to be with you on this Friday. I’m Rachel Scott.
We have a lot to get to, and we start with that tragic news out of Atlanta. On Tuesday a gunman killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent. It comes as the country sees a rise in attacks against Asian Americans, and what we saw in Atlanta has many fearing of even more violence. So today President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Georgia, canceling a political event, to meet with community leaders instead.
VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: (From video.) For the last year we’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating – scapegoating Asian Americans, people with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Words have consequences. It’s the – it’s the coronavirus, full stop.
MS. SCOTT: What we don’t know from authorities is if those killings were racially motivated. The police chief says it’s too early to tell. But what we do know, racist attacks against Asian Americans are nothing new. For years the community has been targeted, and it has only intensified during the pandemic. Former President Donald Trump blamed China for the virus. All of this happening as the Biden administration faces a growing problem with immigration and asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
So joining us tonight are four top reporters: Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Laura Barron-Lopez, White House correspondent for Politico; Weijia Jiang, senior White House correspondent for CBS News; and Jacob Soboroff, correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, and the author of the New York Times bestseller Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.
Laura, I want to start with you. What is the latest after President Joe Biden’s visit today, and where are we now?
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Yeah, so what was really key in his speech today, Rachel, was the way he intersected all of those themes. He talked about systemic racism, he talked about the rise in hate crimes, he talked about also the impact of the relief bill that he just passed, and he tied a lot of it to Georgia, the state that he was in, and to the fact that Georgia in its runoff elected two Democratic senators and that those two Democratic senators are going to be key not only in the relief bill that just passed and the fact that checks are now going to the American public, but also in passing the rest of his agenda. So he called on Congress to pass that COVID anti-hate-crime bill. But again, when it comes to the Senate, that’s going to be the big question where those two Georgia senators are key, whether it’s that anti-hate-crime bill, whether it’s immigration reform, whether it’s voting rights. That is where Biden’s agenda is going to meet the most resistance.
MS. SCOTT: And yesterday we did see Congress, they – held its first hearing in over three decades on anti-Asian American discrimination, and you had a tense moment playing out, Republican Congressman Chip Roy and Democratic Congresswoman Grace Meng at odds over just how to address this issue.
REPRESENTATIVE CHIP ROY (R-TX): (From video.) My concern about this hearing is that it seems to want to venture into the policing of rhetoric in a free society, free speech.
REPRESENTATIVE GRACE MENG (D-NY): (From video.) Your president and your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bullseye on the back of Asian Americans across this country – on our grandparents, on our kids. This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community to – and to find solutions, and we will not let you take our voice away from us.
MS. SCOTT: An emotional moment there in that hearing. Weijia, I want to turn to you on this. You have covered this extensively. These numbers are staggering: 3,800 incidents of hate against Asian Americans, against immigrants in this community. What are you hearing from people in the community, and is there a genuine fear that there is going to be more attacks?
WEIJIA JIANG: You know, Rachel, I’ve talked to so many victims at this point and they do fear for their lives, quite frankly, because they have been attacked before, they are survivors, and they understand what could have happened, and they’ve seen other people lose their lives after attacks on members of the Asian community. So while they are extremely grateful that President Biden and the administration has taken a very firm stance against the rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 that may have led to these attacks, and even though the president has made a commitment to do something, at this point they want to know what that is, right? So they’re calling for federal money, for example, to be, you know, directed toward advocacy groups, given to victims to handle the situation after they have been attacked, and they are calling on lawmakers to pass new legislation that would take concrete steps to make it easier to track these cases and easier to prosecute these cases. And so even though there is some optimism because, obviously, this is a very different tone than we saw from before, now they are waiting to see what comes out of it because even though words matter a lot, action is what they are looking for.
MS. SCOTT: And just to follow up with you, Weijia, on that because you pressed President Donald Trump against his words, against his rhetoric that he used to describe the virus, to describe the pandemic. We talk about words mattering. We heard from President Joe Biden today a very stark contrast, Weijia.
MS. JIANG: Right, so you know, I think when we look back at the way President Trump spoke about the virus, it really comes down to redirecting blame. The worse that the situation became here in the U.S., the more we saw him turn up the rhetoric because he wanted to, you know, take attention away from his own administration’s failed response. So we know this of the former president, that he wants to control his own message and he wants to change the headline by creating distractions, which is why he did not shy away from using some controversial language. But at the end of it, when you look at why, it really is because, you know, he wanted to blame someone, blame another country – China in particular – for what was happening in the U.S. even though it was under his watch and even though it was the result of his missteps. And so I think that’s why those words resonated so much with Asian Americans who believe that’s why they’re being targeted, because other Americans are also looking for a scapegoat just like the president did.
MS. SCOTT: Dan, I want to turn to you on the solutions. We heard from Weijia people in the community, they want action, they don’t just want words. We saw in Congress last week the House did pass a measure that would address gun violence, but does this shooting change the conversation on gun violence and gun reform?
DAN BALZ: I think everybody would like to think that it would, but the history of this issue tells us that it probably won’t. We have had horrific examples of gun violence that ultimately did not change anything in the law. The Sandy Hook shooting where all the little kids were killed, President Obama and then-Vice President Biden worked very hard to try to push Congress to pass legislation. It enjoyed overwhelming public support and nothing happened. After the Parkland shooting nothing happened. We can go through repeated episodes of this and nothing does seem to get done. Perhaps this would be one that does change the nature of it, but I think that if you look at the history of it you have to be skeptical that the outrage over the gun violence is going to change certain people in Congress to vote in a different way than they have in the past.
MS. SCOTT: Jacob, I want to turn to you and we’re going to get to the border crisis in a moment, but I want you to give us the perspective from Los Angeles. We saw hundreds of people taking to the streets to protest the racial discrimination against Asian Americans. Do Asian Americans in that community feel like they’ve been left out of this conversation on racial justice?
Yeah, it feels like we’re having a little bit of a hard time hearing Jacob there, but I do want to turn to something else that President Joe Biden talked about today, voting rights. Georgia is the epicenter of a country struggling with systemic racism. The state the site of Tuesday’s attacks, but also a political battleground over voting rights. Georgia’s newly elected senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock, took to the Senate floor for his first speech and he highlighted the issue.
SENATOR RAPHAEL WARNOCK (D-GA): (From video.) We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era. Politicians in my home state and all across America in their craven lust for power have launched a full-fledged assault on voting rights. They are focused on winning at any cost, even at the cost of the democracy itself.
MS. SCOTT: So, Dan, let’s unpack this. Why has Georgia become such an epicenter as this country addresses both issues of race and democracy?
MR. BALZ: Well, a couple reasons, Rachel. One obviously is the role that Georgia played in this election, giving the state’s electoral votes to Joe Biden. For the first time a Democrat winning in many, many years. Secondly, having two run-off elections for the Senate on the same day, something we’ve never seen before, and both of those seats going to the Democrats, which handed Democrats control of the Senate. But the third issue was the focus on the state by former President Trump in his effort to undo the election, in his effort to overturn the election. And as a result of that, it became a flashpoint for the country as a whole on the issue of voting rights.
And what we’re now seeing is that Republicans are moving in Georgia and in many other states to introduce and try to pass legislation to restrict voting. And we’re seeing in Washington Democrats moving in the opposite direction with a very large, sweeping bill – H.R.1 and S.1 – which would dramatically change the rules for voting in federal elections. So you have now an enormous clash brewing between Republicans in the states and Democrats in Washington.
MS. SCOTT: Hmm, Jacob, I believe we have you back now. And I just want to go back to my question to you. We saw people marching in the streets there in Los Angeles; give us the perspective from where you are.
JACOB SOBOROFF: Well, what I’d say is I think that the Asian American population here in Los Angeles County – to remind everybody, it is the largest county by population in the entire nation. Eleven million people live here. There are more people of Asian descent living in Los Angeles County than any other county in the United States of America. Of course they feel left out over conversations about civil rights, civil justice, and accountability when it comes to this extraordinary rise in acts of hate and hate crimes against members of the AAPI community.
And, you know, to me what this is about – having covered the issues around the border over the course of the last administration – is that when you have racist rhetoric coming from political leadership there are consequences to that. It’s more than just words matter. It’s about how we cover those issues as well. And too often when we talk about the fact that Los Angeles is a majority minority county in a majority minority state, we’re not covering the stories of the AAPI community. And frankly, as a profession, as journalists, I think we must do better.
MS. SCOTT: Laura, we talked about how this is all playing out there in Georgia, President Biden saying that voting rights is an issue that is also dividing Americans. You know, we just passed the 56th anniversary of Selma. The Brennan Center says there have been more than 250 bills introduced in 43 states that would restrict access of voting. So what are some of the challenges and roadblocks that Democrats are going to face while trying to address this issue?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: Yeah, well one of the biggest roadblocks is the fact that that bill that Dan was just talking about – H.R. 1 which is now S. 1 – the massive voting rights bill is pretty much going to stall in the U.S. Senate. And that’s because of the fact that it’s a 50-50 split Senate, it would require to meet a 60-vote threshold in order for it to even come to the floor, and so that is the biggest hurdle for Democrats right now.
And in that same speech that you played a clip from, Rachel, by Reverend Warnock – Senator Warnock, he said – he specifically targeted the filibuster, which is what requires that 60 vote threshold. And he said that they are – that institutions – the institution itself, that Republicans, are protecting the minority – that minority party rather than minority voters, and ensuring that minority voters, Black, brown, Asian voters, would be able to have unimpeded access to the voting booth.
And so one of the biggest arguments right now, especially from House Democrats, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, is that he is tying that filibuster, which is what Democrats feel is going to absolutely block passage of voting rights reforms – they are connecting that directly to racism. And so they’re trying to apply a lot of pressure to their Senate Democratic colleagues to try to reform the filibuster in some way in order to make sure that those voting rights protections are passed.
MS. SCOTT: And just a follow up to that, Laura, because we heard from President Joe Biden. He did comment on this. He said he may be open to reform on the filibuster. Do you think that would amp up the pressure on the White House to reconsider addressing this?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: Potentially; when Biden said that he was open to reform he was talking about a talking filibuster, which in effect just makes it more painful for the minority to block legislation. It wouldn’t actually take away that 60-vote threshold. But it was significant that he even took the step towards saying that he was open to reform. And so as more House Democrats, as civil rights leaders really put the pressure on the White House, as well as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, you could see Democrats slowly but surely in the Senate start to move toward taking that action.
Chuck Schumer is planning to potentially, you know, bring the voting rights bill to the floor. It’ll probably fail if it’s brought to the floor in regular order. And then that could apply even more pressure to the holdouts in the caucus who right now aren’t for reforming the filibuster. But you see day by day – just yesterday Senator Martin Heinrich decided to call for abolishing the filibuster. And you see day by day a few more Senate Democrats starting to get on board with that. So as this progresses, you could – and as more and more of Biden’s agenda items meet resistance – you could see the White House and Senate Democrats slowly move towards more aggressive reform on that legislative filibuster.
MS. SCOTT: I do want to turn to immigration. The Biden administration is facing a surge at the U.S.-Mexico border. The number of migrants is on track to reach a 20-year high. Many of those crossing the border are unaccompanied children. And they are being held in facilities longer than legally allowed. House Republicans visited the border earlier this week and blamed President Biden’s policies for the increase.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) Who knows what dangers and who doesn’t make it, all because the policies of our president has changed and told them something different?
MS. SCOTT: And in an exclusive interview with my colleague George Stephanopoulos at ABC News, President Biden had a warning for migrants. Take a listen.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Don’t come over. And the process of getting set up – and it’s not going to take a whole long time – is to be able to apply for asylum in place. So don’t leave your town or city or community.
MS. SCOTT: The president also said this week he’s not planning on traveling to the border anytime soon. So, Jacob, you have covered immigration extensively for years. What exactly is happening at the border right now?
MR. SOBOROFF: You know, Rachel, you have a humanitarian crisis. You have a humanitarian crisis not of national security importance. This is not a security crisis. This is one of humanity, of hundreds, thousands of children who are languishing in border jails, Border Patrol processing stations, where they shouldn’t be. And the secretary of homeland security, Secretary Mayorkas, admits this. He says Border Patrol processing facilities, any Border Patrol facility, is no place for a child. And the reason that they’re stuck there is simple. It’s capacity. They do not have capacity at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where child welfare professionals can take care and custody of the children who are coming.
And the reason they’re coming is not because of some open border policy. On the contrary, most people can’t get into the country right now. And I’ve seen that with my own eyes, having reported down at the border over the course of the last couple weeks. The issue here is the fact that the Biden administration has reversed some of the Trump administration policies, including this Title 42 public health regulation that has kept everyone out of the country. Now they’re starting to let unaccompanied migrant children into the country in the name of a fair, and safe, and orderly immigration process. But that has created logistical challenges on the ground.
And part of the problem is we, as journalists, are not able to explain what’s going on, I think, to the larger American public because the Biden administration at this point is not letting us inside, and which I think is critical for them to do. The Trump administration did it at the height of the separations – to show us the cruelty of those policies. The Biden administration should let us in so we can show what it is about the system that they want to change instead of keeping it closed behind those doors of the processing center.
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, the access is certainly important here, Jacob. And we’re hearing from lawmakers who have been able to go inside. Senator Chris Murphy today tweeted he was fighting back tears when he was speaking to a 13-year-old who was explaining through a translator what it was like being separated from her grandmother, without her parents, just absolutely terrified in that moment. Do you think that President Joe Biden needs to reverse course here and say that he needs to get down to the border and soon?
MR. SOBOROFF: Sure, I mean, I think it could not hurt to have the president of the United States down there himself. You know, the secretary, as you mentioned, was down there today with this bipartisan group of senators. This is a big priority for them, not just reuniting all of the families that the Trump administration deliberately in the name of scaring people away from coming to the country separated from one another in what Physicians for Human Rights called torture, the American Academy of Pediatric(s) called government-sanctioned child abuse; the Biden administration is trying a hard pivot here away from those types of policies and towards a more humane system, but their problem here is that they’re not doing an effective job in messaging how they are going to get there. It’s complicated, and to have the commander in chief down there himself, perhaps the vice president, I think would go a long way towards explaining that this is about taking care of the people coming to this country, treating them as human beings and with humanity, and not as criminals – not using an enforcement mechanism to stop people from coming to the country.
MS. SCOTT: I want to pick up, Weijia, on where Jacob left off, on that messaging. Why is the Biden administration refusing to call this a crisis? Are they struggling with the messaging?
MS. JIANG: I think they are, Rachel, because they are saying other things that indicates this is a humanitarian crisis. For example, you mentioned the Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas said in a lengthy statement that they are expecting a surge that they haven’t seen in 20 years. Well, just seven years ago, under the Obama administration, there was a similar surge of young migrants, and at that time then-President Obama said it was a humanitarian crisis. So if the numbers now are greater than they were back then, then certainly, you know, the – you know, you talk about words matter, again – this is a crisis rather than a challenge that we keep hearing from the White House. But of course, you know, President Biden hasn’t been there for that long, and no incoming president wants to acknowledge that they have a crisis on their hands. But they are also at the same time not diminishing how grave the situation is. They are being very upfront about the fact that they are unable to process these kids, like Jacob mentioned, but they are not showing us what they are seeing. And as we’ve been talking about tonight, that is critical here because for so long they talked about and promised transparency, and we are not seeing that. In fact, it was a glaring line in a press release today announcing that the secretary was back at the border, but the last line said it is closed press and that he would not be addressing the media afterward or taking any questions. So I think, you know, people care about what’s happening to these kids. They want to see for themselves. And you know, judging from the stories that we’re hearing from the lawyers who represent the kids, it is a various – a very somber and serious situation for them.
MS. SCOTT: Dan, we saw the House pass two immigration bills this week. Senate Republicans say that they need to address border security first. But zoom out for us and give us some big picture here about why immigration reform is such a heavy lift for Congress.
MR. BALZ: Rachel, I think that the main reason is that there is a core of the Republican Party base which is firmly against many of these proposals on immigration, particularly anything that would provide legal status or a path to citizenship for people who are here illegally and who have been here for many, many years illegally, that are – estimated 11 million or thereabouts, and that has created a roadblock in Congress. Republican President George W. Bush tried to do this during his administration and was blocked by his own party. President Obama, during his administration there was a bipartisan group in the – in the Senate, the Gang of Eight, who produced a bill that came out of the Senate that made a lot of changes; it died in the Republican House. Now you have the Democrats in the – in the House passing legislation that would provide legal status for the DREAMers and some others. That now goes to the Senate, but there’s no indication that there are many more votes among Republicans in the Senate that would get over the 60-vote threshold that we are talking about. And so it’s part of the general paralysis of our politics that essentially a minority can block some significant legislation that has broad support. I mean, most of the main issues or changes in the Democrats’ bill are popular among both Republicans and Democrats. I mean, the idea of providing a path to citizenship for those who have been here for a long time enjoys something like 80 percent support, and yet we can’t see the Congress come together to try to pass that legislation, so it’s indicative of the kinds of politics we have today.
MS. SCOTT: Laura, we just have 10 seconds left. Quick question for you, does President Joe Biden make this his next priority?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: That’s the big question right now, Rachel, which is whether or not they’re going to focus on immigration or they’re going to focus on their next recovery act, which would likely include infrastructure and some kind of jobs – big jobs package to help shore up the economy after this first relief package. So right now it’s really unclear –
MS. SCOTT: Laura, I’m going to have to cut you off there. We are out of time and we’re going to have to leave it there tonight. Many thanks to Dan, Laura, Weijia, and Jacob for their insights, and thank you for joining us. We’ll continue the conversation on our Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 on our website, on Facebook, and on YouTube. I’m Rachel Scott. Good night from Washington.