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House Speaker Johnson insists Biden can close the border with an executive order

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now let's check a claim that's made in the immigration debate. Republicans who blocked a bipartisan immigration plan in Congress have been insisting it's not really needed.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

House Speaker Mike Johnson is among those making that assertion. The Republican leader has been saying that the president can close the border without the help of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE JOHNSON: I told President Biden this myself on multiple occasions, most recently a couple of weeks ago on the phone. I read him the law that says that he has all this authority, but he refuses to act.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been looking into this, and she joins us now. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so let's start with a basic question. Can President Biden really shut down the border, as the speaker insists?

KHALID: I posed this question to a number of immigration experts, and the answer I came away with is that it is way too simple to think that any president can just wave a magic wand and suddenly seal off the country's borders. Theresa Cardinal Brown works on immigration issues at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She served in the Bush and Obama administrations. And she thought this was a wild idea.

THERESA CARDINAL BROWN: Nobody has ever shut down the border. It has never happened. We did not shut down the border after 9/11. And legally, we are responsible for somebody the minute they step foot on U.S. soil. And if they walk up to the fence, they're on U.S. soil.

KHALID: And she's talking there about asylum law. And this is different than, you know, say, a national security measure, because I've heard some Republicans try to equate an asylum ban at the southern border to the so-called Muslim travel ban that former President Trump put in place. But what's going on at the southern border is different. It is an asylum issue. You know, the bipartisan bill that fell apart in Congress the other week would have given the president a new authority to declare an immigration emergency once a certain number of migrants had entered the country, but that was new.

FADEL: Didn't former President Trump kind of shut down the border during COVID?

KHALID: I guess under Title 42, if you're referring to that. That was a COVID-era measure that barred migrants from coming in because of public health concerns. The Biden administration did keep that Trump rule around for a long time, but a court struck that down. Donald Trump also tried a transit ban. It prevented many migrants from getting asylum if they had passed through a number of countries on their way to the U.S. border, but that was also struck down by the courts. President Biden has also tried a version of that. And, you know, without getting, I think, too far into the nitty-gritty details, it is also being challenged in court. And I think that is one of the fundamental challenges of making immigration law via executive actions, is it can get held up in the courts.

FADEL: So the president, though, is under a lot of political pressure to do something. Help doesn't seem to be coming from Congress. So can he take any unilateral steps?

KHALID: Well, I will say, the White House says that it has not ruled out other possible changes. But I think there is a distinction, Leila, between what the president can do and what he will do politically, because if he takes too tough of an approach, it could turn off some Democrats in an election year. Republicans will say that he ought to build more of a border wall or reinstate the Trump-era policy known as remain in Mexico that requires migrants to stay in Mexico until their court hearing date. But the key here is the U.S. government can't do that unilaterally. It needs Mexico's cooperation.

You know, it's not clear what the White House is considering next, but what is clear is that only 29% of Americans approve of how President Biden is handling immigration. That's according to our latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. And that means it'll be an issue that is at the top of many voters' minds heading into a presidential election year.

FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you, Asma.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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