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The chaos after Title 42 undercuts Biden's pledge for immigration reform

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When President Biden ran for office, he promised to make the immigration system fair, orderly and humane. That pledge is being tested this week. Tens of thousands of migrants are at the U.S. border hoping to get in. There is the risk of a humanitarian crisis and, for the president, a political crisis as well. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has more.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: When he first got to the White House, President Biden didn't wait long to try to reverse what his predecessor had done on immigration. During those early days, Biden stopped construction on former President Donald Trump's border wall, and he introduced a plan to overhaul the broken immigration system.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: With the first action today, we're going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration.

ORDOÑEZ: But the end of the Trump era drew large numbers of migrants to the border, and Biden quickly found himself playing defense.

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BIDEN: If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority - the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back - are being sent back.

ORDOÑEZ: That was true. He was able to say that because one thing he kept in place was Title 42, a Trump-era restriction that allowed the government to turn people back because of the pandemic. But the COVID emergency ended, and as of this morning, so has Title 42. There are long lineups of people at the border and uncertainty about what happens next. It's a big test for a president who ran on experience and competency. Leon Panetta was chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton.

LEON PANETTA: As president of the United States, whether you like it or not, you have to deal with crisis. And this is a crisis.

ORDOÑEZ: He says Biden can't fix the immigration system alone without Congress. There are no signs of that happening. Regardless, Biden will be judged on whether his administration can manage this crisis.

PANETTA: Unfortunately, it's a no-win position. It's a no-win issue. But it is a responsibility that the federal government has - nobody else.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden says his officials are doing all they can, but this week he acknowledged some uncertainty about whether it's enough.

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BIDEN: But it remains to be seen. It's going to be chaotic for a while.

ORDOÑEZ: Republicans are ready. Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez says this is an opportunity to win back moderate voters.

LESLIE SANCHEZ: Biden's inaction on closing the porous border has created an opportunity for Republicans in swing districts to go back to frustrated voters and say, we have a solution.

ORDOÑEZ: Republicans in the House voted this week on their own immigration plan. It resurrects Trump's border wall, among other things.

SANCHEZ: And the reason that's important is - I would say fundamentally, many women voters going back to 2016 and previous elections looked at the open border and the failure to have security as a national security issue.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden's team has been out in full force this week trying to explain tough new rules for people seeking asylum. But it's a complicated case to make. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

CELINDA LAKE: It's always easier to throw a flame, which is what the Republicans do, than to communicate a comprehensive, multi-agency, multi-country approach in nine-second soundbites and one photo.

ORDOÑEZ: Right now, she says voters are far more concerned about the economy ahead of the 2024 race. But if things get worse at the border, that could elevate the issue.

LAKE: I think the challenge is when people aren't paying very much attention, so they will be unduly influenced by dramatic photos and dramatic statements.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden's team says they're ready to handle the situation, but they're warning there are some challenging days ahead because it will take some time for their plans to work. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.