President Biden is in a tough place on immigration.
On one side, he faces growing pressure from supporters who want his administration to stop turning away asylum-seekers — and to invest more political capital on creating a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
On the other side, critics want him to do more to stop what has turned into the largest wave of migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border in recent history, with border agents averaging 6,300 encounters with migrants every day last month.
It's against this backdrop that Biden spoke Monday to the nation's largest Latino advocacy organization, UnidosUS.
In prerecorded remarks, Biden promised to continue to fight for undocumented Americans. "My administration will always have your back," he declared.
Some of Biden's supporters, like Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum, hoped his speech would be directed at not just his base, but more broadly to the American people — particularly to swing voters who are concerned about migration yet recognize the value of immigrants in their communities.
"This has to be a speech to suburban families, to rural families, who are asking questions of, 'OK, as a nation, are we going to be safe and secure under the Biden administration?" Noorani said. "'And are we going to be able to treat the immigrants who I've come to know and love through church, through work, through school — are we going to treat them compassionately?' "
Noorani said Biden needs the backing of a much broader swath of Americans if he wants to build the support he needs to address immigration issues.
In his less-than-two-minute remarks, Biden did not address border security.
He instead spoke about protecting vulnerable immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, as well as fighting for a pathway to citizenship for much of the larger community of 11 million undocumented immigrants.
He also thanked advocates affiliated with UnidosUS as well as the broader Latino community for stepping up during their pandemic to help Americans get through the health crisis.
"Six months ago, our nation was reeling from a once-in-a-century health crisis, a once-in-a-generation economic crisis, both of which brought disproportionate heartache to Latino families," Biden said.
Supporters want more action on immigration promises
Since taking office, Biden has followed through on several campaign promises, including stopping construction on the southern border wall. He ended a Trump administration program that required asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as they waited for their cases to be heard. And he created a task force to reunite immigrant children and parents who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants has gone almost nowhere. Smaller legislative packages that would protect farm workers and younger immigrants brought to the country illegally as children have also stalled.
Finding a way to protect those younger immigrants has become even more important to Biden's supporters after a federal judge in Texas ruled this month that the program created to protect them was unconstitutional.
The administration has vowed to appeal the decision and also supports efforts by Democratic lawmakers to try fold the issue into a massive budget reconciliation package this summer.
In the past week, however, Biden has twice questioned whether the Senate rules would allow such a move.
Just finished meeting w/ @VP alongside my sisters and brothers in the movement. @VP Harris affirmed her commitment to passing citizenship through reconciliation this year. It's been 35 years since the last major citizenship bill. Our time is now. #WeAreHome pic.twitter.com/C1RZBvoiUM— Lorella Praeli (@lorellapraeli) July 22, 2021
Supporters want the asylum system restored
In Monday's remarks, Biden did not address the fate of a Trump-era pandemic rule that has been kept in place, allowing his administration to quickly turn away tens of thousands of people seeking asylum.
That rule, known as Title 42, has angered some supporters who see it less as a public health measure and more of a convenient way to deter migration and keep political opponents at bay.
"One of the most damaging legacies from the Trump administration is the goalposts were moved in such a way that we further limited the rights of asylum-seekers and migrants at the border," said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute.
"And if we don't have the political courage to at least restore the modicum of rights that asylum-seekers have at the border, the moving of those goalposts and the eroding of those rights will be the new normal," he said.
Pandemic relief a focus
Those attending the virtual conference were, of course, also interested in what Biden had to say about pandemic relief.
The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Latino families, said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, deputy vice president of policy and advocacy at UnidosUS.
"While immigration packs a powerful punch and it is incredibly important for Latinos, we care deeply about the economy and jobs," Martinez said. "We care deeply about how we're going to recover from the pandemic and about health care, particularly the cost of health care, and all of those things are interconnected and they also intersect with the most vulnerable among us who are immigrants and the undocumented."
There are obvious political reasons to address the fastest-growing population in the country.
Matt Barreto, a Democratic pollster who advised the Biden campaign, said political parties need to engage with the community well ahead of elections, noting the large number of first-time voters who are Latino.
"Because of that churn of new citizens and young people, you can't take the Latino vote for granted," he said.
NOEL KING, HOST:
President Biden will talk to the biggest Latino civil rights organization in the country today. He's under pressure to make good on some promises he made about immigration early in his term. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is following this one. Hey, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: What is the particular pressure that Biden is facing?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, there are many complex immigration issues facing the administration, but two of them have really reached a crossroads right now. His remarks to UnidosUS today come at a time when an average 6,000 migrants a day have been arriving at the border. That's the largest number in recent history. The White House has also held on to a pandemic rule that shuts the border to the vast majority of people seeking asylum. It's called Title 42. And the White House says it's a matter of public health to keep it there. But it is something that has really angered people who see it more of a political move than a public health measure, and they're pressuring the White House to lift that order.
KING: OK, so those are would-be immigrants who are still outside of the country. What about immigrants inside the country?
ORDOÑEZ: Right. He has - the other thing is he has not made much headway on efforts to protect the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are living inside the country. And just this month, a federal judge in Texas ruled against the program known as DACA. That's the program that protects young immigrants from deportation. I talked to immigration advocates last week about what they want to hear from Biden today. Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum told me he thinks it's important that Biden tries to appeal to swing voters on this issue, people who are concerned about the border but also open to changes.
ALI NOORANI: This has to be a speech to suburban families, to rural families, who are asking questions of - OK, as a nation, are we going to be safe and secure under the Biden administration? And are we going to be able to treat the immigrants who I've come to know and love through church, through work, through school, are we going to treat them compassionately?
ORDOÑEZ: Now, some protections for undocumented people may be included in a budget reconciliation package that Democrats are working on this summer. The White House says it supports that push, but in the past week, Biden has also twice questioned whether the rules would allow it.
KING: Twice, OK. So what's going to happen at this conference with UnidosUS today?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, the - you know, we do not expect, you know, a lot of details on some of these issues. You know, this is a virtual conference, and Biden's remarks are going to be prerecorded. You know, I don't expect it will be long or extremely detailed. And there are other top-of-mind issues that Latinos want to hear about, too. I spoke about this with Clarissa Martinez De Castro. She works on policy and advocacy at UnidosUS.
CLARISSA MARTINEZ DE CASTRO: While immigration packs a powerful punch and it is incredibly important for Latinos, we care deeply about the economy and jobs. We care deeply about how we're going to recover from the pandemic.
KING: And the stakes are pretty high here for the president, aren't they?
ORDOÑEZ: They are very high. You know, this is the fastest-growing part of the electorate. The Biden team is also very aware of the inroads that former President Donald Trump made with Latinos. Matt Barreto, he is a Democratic pollster who advised the Biden campaign, and he says it's really important to engage early because there are so many first-time Latino voters.
MATT BARRETO: And so because of that churn of new citizens and young people, you can't take the Latino vote for granted. You need to be constantly doing outreach and always be communicating with Latinos.
ORDOÑEZ: And, you know, Noel, he said he thinks this White House is doing just that, in part through having Latinos in a number of senior positions at the White House and also doing a lot of outreach via campaign affiliates.
KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you, Franco.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.