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President Biden's White House Introduces Initiatives On Immigration

NOEL KING, HOST:

If the pandemic is his top priority, then immigration appears to be Biden's second. He signed several executive actions on immigration yesterday, an assault on President Trump's most controversial policies. And Biden sent a bill to Congress that offers a pathway to citizenship for more than 10 million immigrants who are in this country illegally. NPR's John Burnett covers immigration and is on the line with us from Austin. Good morning, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So many new White House initiatives on immigration in less than 24 hours.

BURNETT: Yeah, it's mammoth. It's a complete repudiation of Donald Trump's crackdown on immigration. Biden signed executive actions to throw out the so-called Muslim travel ban to temporarily halt construction of the border wall for the next hundred days to rein in ICE agents and stop certain deportations and to strengthen DACA. That's the Obama-era program that shields the DREAMers from deportation. These are immigrants who were brought here illegally as children, and many have now become essential workers. Trump tried to cancel DACA, but the Supreme Court kept the program alive.

KING: OK. So those are the executive actions. And then there's the Biden bill. How ambitious is it?

BURNETT: Well, in the most dramatic step, Biden wants to create a road map to citizenship for more than 10 million undocumented immigrants. This is the big immigration reform that some people have been clamoring for for decades. Biden's bill says an undocumented immigrant could become an American in eight years if they pass background checks, pay their taxes and complete a citizenship test. Also, Biden wants to allow more refugees into the U.S. who are fleeing war and natural disasters.

KING: Lawmakers, as you point out, have been fighting over immigration reform for decades. So what kind of chance does this have of passing in Congress?

BURNETT: Yeah, it's going to be a tough sell, Noel, among the immigration hawks in this tightly divided Congress. They're leery that Biden wants to dismantle all those tough border controls that Trump imposed. There's not much in here about border security. Biden wants his Homeland Security Department to expand surveillance technology as an alternative to those steel and concrete barriers. Here's Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. They favor less immigration to the U.S.

MARK KRIKORIAN: It's a radical departure from all previous amnesty plans because it has no enforcement in it, you know? So I actually think realistically, there's no way the Senate could ever pass this.

KING: OK, he wants less immigration. How are immigrant rights advocates responding to this?

BURNETT: They're downright giddy. I mean, yesterday they came in from the cold. For four years, they've bemoaned one Trump anti-immigrant policy after the next. There were more than 400 of them in all. But it's a new day. Here's Greisa Martinez Rosas. She's an undocumented DREAMer herself and head of the group United We Dream.

GREISA MARTINEZ ROSAS: This is the most progressive legalization bill in history. We made it. We made this day happen. And we are resolute in our commitment to bring peace, stability and joy to our people as we turn a new chapter in our country.

KING: OK, so how would this new chapter practically affect the lives of immigrants?

BURNETT: Well, as it happens, I watched the inauguration yesterday with a Guatemalan asylum-seeker named Hilda Ramirez. She's taken refuge in a Presbyterian church here in Austin for all the Trump years. And I've interviewed her several times. Hilda is afraid that if she leaves church property, ICE agents will sweep her up and deport her back to Central America. Her 14-year-old Ivan has lived a third of his life in the suburban church. She watched the ceremony on a Spanish-language channel, and her eyes filled with tears.

(SOUNDBITEOF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Joseph Robert (ph) Biden (speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Biden's bill would potentially be a life-changer for them. Hilda could get a green card and a work permit, and Ivan could live like a normal teenager.

HILDA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: So she said she's full of hope. She's been praying that God send them a good U.S. president who will treat immigrants justly. And she said it's been super sad and difficult for the past four years under Trump, and she's just exhausted.

KING: NPR's John Burnett in Austin. John, thank you.

BURNETT: You bet, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.