Special: President Joe Biden’s Actions on Immigration

Feb. 05, 2021 AT 9:08 p.m. EST

More than 500 of the children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration are still waiting to be reunited, as their parents cannot be found. The panel discussed how President Joe Biden is working to create a task force that aims to reunite the separated children, and the effectiveness of his plan. PBS NewsHour Correspondent Lisa Desjardins guest moderates.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

LISA DESJARDINS: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Lisa Desjardins.

Court filings from October found that more than 500 of the children separated from their parents at the southern border under the Trump administration are still waiting to be reunited. Their parents cannot be found. A lawsuit filed in 2018 right after separations were at their peak provided extraordinary accounts of the trauma this separation caused to children. One mother who was reunited with her toddler wrote that the child “continued to cry when we got home and would hold onto my leg and would not let me go. When I look off his clothes, he was full of dirt and lice.” President Joe Biden took action on immigration this week, creating a taskforce to try to reunite these separated children.

Joining me now are three reporters covering it all: Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; Jake Sherman, founder of Punchbowl News, a political newsletter; and Sabrina Siddiqui, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

Sabrina, I think I want to start with you, and just tell us what exactly the Biden administration is doing here on immigration. And do you have a sense of if they think they can get through a larger immigration reform, which I know millions of Americans are watching?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI: Well, I’ll start with the first point because the second one is a lot more complicated. And what I think the Biden administration is doing is they are doing what a lot of incoming administrations do, which is reverse policies of their predecessor that are either unpopular or at odds with their own agenda. And so you saw President Biden sign this executive order to create a taskforce to reunify families who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of the Trump administration’s very controversial zero-tolerance policy. He also signed an executive order to increase refugee admissions to 125,000, which is a dramatic increase from the historic lows under the Trump administration; I think roughly less than 12,000 refugees were admitted in the fiscal year of 2020 under former President Trump. So those are just some of the early actions we’re seeing Biden take, but that’s – the real question is the second point. Advocates are going to want to see more comprehensive immigration reform, and he sent a bill to Congress on his first day in office. It was really more of a way of messaging that this is a priority for him, but we know that that kind of bill is dead on arrival with Republicans in Congress. Democrats don’t have a supermajority; it’s a 50-50 Senate. So you know, are they going to do it piecemeal, or is this going to be a movie that we’ve all seen before where you have months of negotiations over comprehensive immigration reform only for it to ultimately go nowhere?

MS. DESJARDINS: Jake, I’m handing the moderator wheel over to Sabrina with her question: Are they going to do this piecemeal – maybe just DACA by itself? What exactly is doable, do you think, in the 2021 U.S. Congress?

JAKE SHERMAN: It has to be piecemeal. I just don’t see – I mean, Lindsey Graham pointed out the other day this is the tightest-divided Congress we’ve ever had, pretty much, in modern times, and I think to think that there’s going to be some sort of large global immigration deal, as we all know, is just not tethered to reality. I’m not saying it’s not needed or there aren’t elements in the – in the Congress that want this done, but it’s just not – it’s not going to happen right now. I do think, though – I mean, the question is can something like a permanent DACA get 60 votes in the Senate? It could definitely pass the House of Representatives, but I just – I don’t know that it can get through the Senate.

MS. DESJARDINS: Jonathan, I want to ask you something I’ve been fascinated about this, is what happened to that brief group of Republicans – let’s say Marco Rubio – who a long time ago were considering immigration reform? You know, I speak to him now and he tells me, hey, I’m still open to it if there’s enough money for border enforcement. Is there a world where Democrats could offer, say, a $30 billion – we’re talking about $2 trillion here, $2 trillion there. What about 30 billion (dollars) for border enforcement to get a comprehensive immigration deal? Is that possible?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, if you step back and look at the politics of this, the last time there was a comprehensive effort to push through an immigration overhaul was the first quarter of 2013, first half of 2013, and the Republicans were coming off of a bruising loss, their second consecutive loss for the presidency, and were asking themselves hard questions about their appeal among an increasingly diverse country, and a lot of lawmakers in the Republican Party at that time said that the way that we can sort of win our way back is to, you know, appeal to more non-White Americans, and as part of that let’s do an immigration reform bill. You heard that a lot in 2013, and that’s why it passed the Senate pretty overwhelmingly that year. Well, eight years later you don’t hear as much of that kind of soul-searching among the Republicans, in part because Donald Trump did better – even as he was defeated, he did better this time, Lisa, you know, with people of color. The Republican Party did better in parts of the country, especially in House races where they had Hispanic and Asian American and African American candidates win House seats. So you know, I don’t know that they have the same urgency, I guess is what I’m saying, politically as they did eight years ago. But I think to Jake’s point, I can see a scenario where on a DACA fix alone they can get over 60 senators voting for that. I think it's going to have to be negotiated with probably some compromise on, yes, border security money, but I think they can – they can get there. I don’t know if they can get many more than 60, but I think they can get 60.

MS. DESJARDINS: Jake, you’ve been nodding.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, I think he’s right, I think it would have to include some sort of border security measure. I think the incentive for Republicans, quite frankly, would be to get the issue off the table and to – not only on the policy perspective, but on the political perspective. Republicans have wanted to do this. I don’t know, I mean, you bring up a good point, Lisa. Can they craft some sort of compromise that has just such a massive amount of money for border security and some interior enforcement, some sort of, you know, addition of judges around the country – I mean, there is – the crazy thing here, Lisa, is that we all know what the deal is. Everyone involved knows exactly what this deal looks like. It’s just you need the political courage to get it done. And so far we haven’t had that.

MS. DESJARDINS: On most issues. Yeah.

MR. MARTIN: And frankly – frankly, Lisa, it would have been easier for a President Trump to have gotten this bill to his desk because he would have been a sort of Nixon goes to China, right? He could have more easily gotten Republican lawmakers to vote for this because they would have had the cover of their, you know, hard-right – (laughs) – you know, president, who oftentimes demagogued immigrants. You know, if he was going to sign a DACA bill, I think it would have been easier to have gotten 60 senators. I think it’s a little different now with a Democratic president in the White House than it would have been with Trump. I mean, Trump could have done a lot on policy stuff, because he would have given the lawmakers in his own party huge cover on it. And I think – you know, this is now for the history books – but sort of missed opportunities that Trump had on so many issues is extraordinary.

MS. DESJARDINS: I definitely remember that – the Wednesday Trump versus the Thursday Trump, when they thought they had gotten so close to that deal with President Trump, but he changed his mind Thursday morning.

Sabrina, let’s talk about President Biden. You know, I saw you out on the trail. I saw you in Wilmington – as much as there was a trail for the Biden campaign this year. I saw you in Wilmington covering him, talking about these issues. But, you know, as Jonathan sort of brought up, the Hispanic voting bloc – and you don’t want to talk about it as one voting bloc, because obviously it depends on where you are, and Cuban Americans, Mexican Americans, all – generational, there are very many differences. But this is an area where President Biden underperformed what they were hoping to do. How important is immigration for him politically? And can he afford not – can Democrats afford for nothing to happen?

MS. SIDDIQUI: Well, I think immigration is absolutely an important issue. But one thing that the 2020 election also revealed is that, to your point, no one group is a monolith. And so there are other issues that are of priority to Hispanic voters, including the health of the economy and jobs, as well as access to health care. And so I think a lot of his initial tenure in office will be judged by how well he – how quickly he’s able to lift the nation out of the pandemic as well as out of this economic recession.

But on the issue of immigration, I do think that, look, one of the big points of contention for former President Obama was that he did not, according to progressives, prioritize immigration when they had a supermajority in the Senate, as well as control of the House. And so obviously he had executive actions that came in his second term, after those failed 2013 negotiations, but a lot of immigration advocates felt like it was too little too late. So does Biden put more of his political capital early on toward immigration? That’s also going to be a key question. But how much political capital can he really spend on a really complex issue like immigration when, as we pointed out, he is dealing with parallel crises in terms of coronavirus as well as the economy?

MS. DESJARDINS: Jonathan, Jake, last thoughts on this?

MR. SHERMAN: Well, I think Sabrina’s right –

MR. MARTIN: Yeah, I think the President – go ahead. Jake, go ahead.

MR. SHERMAN: OK, I think Sabrina’s right. And I think that oftentimes it’s a lazy caricature to believe that, you know, any one group has, you know, immigration as a priority. I do think, though, there is blame here for Obama, going back to those days. (Laughs.) And I think Biden could fall into a similar trap, I do. I think that there are a lot of hopes for some sort of immigration reform. And Biden has promised that he would – that he would follow through on it.

MS. DESJARDINS: Jonathan.

MR. MARTIN: Yeah, I would just – I mean, I would just say, Lisa, he’s going to spend a lot of capital politically on the stimulus bill. He’ll spend more capital, I think, trying to get infrastructure done later in the year. I’m just not sure how much he’s going to have left here on immigration. But again, the politics of immigration are a little bit more complicated. You can get some bipartisan support if you do this carefully and tailor it to appeal to folks that want a deal, but also are sensitive on the border issue as well.

MS. DESJARDINS: That is where this issue has been for many years, and that’s where we’re going to leave it for tonight. Many thanks to you all, Jonathan, Jake, and Sabrina, for your insights. And thank you to our viewers for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a behind-the-scenes look into all things Washington.

I’m Lisa Desjardins. Good night from Washington.

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