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House Democrat on why he supports Biden's executive action restricting migration

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden took executive action today to temporarily close the border with Mexico to most people seeking asylum. This comes after months of political pressure, including from members of the president's own party, like Democratic Congressman Mike Levin of California. He signed a letter last month urging Biden to, quote, "use all tools at your disposal." And today Congressman Levin was at the White House alongside President Biden. He joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MIKE LEVIN: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: These new restrictions kick in once the average for daily crossings hits 2,500 people, and the number is already higher than that. So what impact do you think this will immediately have on your district, which starts about 35 miles north of Mexico?

LEVIN: Well, Ari, I just visited the border down in East County, San Diego, and I really believe it will have a big impact. I think our border patrol officials are overwhelmed, and this EO will help lower the number of asylum claims. It will hopefully reduce the strain on our border officials and our court system and allow border officials to process the asylum claims that are already in the queue more efficiently. You know, we already have 3.3 million to be adjudicated. And I've been told that even if we were to double the number of immigration judges, it would take until 2032 in order to get through the entire backlog. So I think the idea here is at least we can get started on this massive backlog.

SHAPIRO: Well, polls have shown that most Americans disapprove of how Biden has handled the border. Republicans say that today's action is just meant to make the president look tough in an election year. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky today called it too little, too late.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: This is like turning a garden hose on a five-alarm fire, and the American people are not fools.

SHAPIRO: Congressman Levin, how do you respond to that?

LEVIN: Well, Congress had the opportunity to do a lot more, a lot sooner. An executive action is not supposed to be a substitute for actual congressional legislation. I think President Biden needed to act in the face of Republican obstruction. And let's not forget that Donald Trump and Mike Johnson = they really have taken an all-or-nothing approach. They've refused to come to the negotiating table. They haven't been serious about legislating. And we had Senators Lankford, Murphy and Sinema. They wrote the bipartisan bill, but Trump urged Republicans to kill that bill. So I do think that what the president did today is actually the opposite. I think it's actually trying to do what he can with the executive authority he has to actually address the challenges that we face.

SHAPIRO: Except let me ask you about that authority because the president has been saying for a while now that he needed Congress to empower him. Does this in some way undercut his argument that he had to wait for Congress?

LEVIN: Well, it's interesting. Part of our brief today, as members of Congress - those who were there - was with Department of Justice officials, and we asked about the ability to defend this rule in the courts. And we know there'll be legal challenges. And they did express confidence...

SHAPIRO: The ACLU has already said that they are planning to challenge it, and a similar plan by President Trump was struck down in 2018. Yeah.

LEVIN: Right. They did express confidence that - as they were crafting this executive action, they believed that it would be able to stand up to that scrutiny. Time will tell. But the reality is that, certainly, congressional action would be preferable to executive action because ultimately, it's not just about whether it would withstand legal scrutiny, but also, it needs to be far more comprehensive than what the president is doing today. You know, none of the significant challenges around immigration judges or the border patrol being able to hire more expediently and, you know, fill their vacancies and nothing about pathways of citizenship for people who have been here for a long time and who have been contributing positively to our society and our economy are addressed in this executive action. So, again, it's not supposed to be a substitute, but I think he needed to act in the face of Republican obstruction.

SHAPIRO: Human rights advocates argue that this violates the promise of America. California Senator Alex Padilla from your own party, your own state - he said this policy, quote, "undermined American values and abandoned our nation's obligations to provide people fleeing persecution, violence, and authoritarianism with an opportunity to seek refuge in the U.S." And so even if this policy is legal, even if it does stand up to challenges in court, is it moral?

LEVIN: Well, first, let me say Senator Padilla is a close friend and an extraordinarily great member of the Senate - proud to have him as our senator. I really believe that what this executive action will do will cut the smugglers out in favor of safe, legal and orderly pathways. And I think that's what we need. And what's happening today - I would argue when people are coming across, instead of going through the CBP-created system, the application that they've created - going around that system, where they're paying smugglers 7, 8, $10,000, getting the information on social media, TikTok, YouTube and so forth = I would say that that is a fundamentally broken system and inconsistent with our values.

You know, my mom's parents came from Mexico. They did so in an orderly fashion when they were very young. And it was a far, far different set of circumstances than we're seeing out at the border today. And I hope that this policy announced today, assuming it's able to withstand all the legal challenges, will get us back on track to safety, to an orderly border and ultimately to the legal path being that which is most incentivized.

SHAPIRO: Congressman Mike Levin, Democrat of California, thank you for speaking with us today.

LEVIN: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Linnea Anderson
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.