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The Situation At The U.S.-Mexico Border May Disrupt The White House's 100 Day Agenda

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When he took office, President Biden said the pandemic would be his administration's greatest challenge, but there have been plenty of other issues brewing. One that has taken a lot of time and a lot of political energy during his first hundred days - the record number of children and teens from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S. It is complicating Biden's promise of a more humane immigration policy. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has more.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Before taking office, then-President-elect Biden had a warning for his supporters. He had pledged to roll back the Trump administration's restrictions on people from Central America seeking asylum, fleeing violence, corruption and poverty. But in December, he said he needed time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And the timeline is to do it so that we, in fact, make it better not worse.

ORDOÑEZ: He said he needed up to six months to put in some guardrails first.

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BIDEN: The last thing we need is to say we're going to stop immediately the, you know - the access to asylum the way it's being run now and end up with 2 million people on our border.

ORDOÑEZ: It was the right message, said Theresa Brown, who worked on this for both the Bush and Obama administrations. Moving too quickly could risk a new surge, she said, so she was surprised and disappointed when Biden moved so fast.

THERESA BROWN: I just think maybe the anticipation, the fanfare, the buildup was bigger than what they could actually functionally get done.

ORDOÑEZ: The president signed five immigration executive orders on his first day of office. He ended a Trump program that required asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as they waited for their cases to be heard. Brown didn't have a problem with the policy changes, but she said the administration didn't seem ready for what came next.

BROWN: It was big flourishes and things that, like - OK, I hit a campaign promise. I'm going to do X. But announcing it and signing a piece of paper is not the same as actually implementing it.

ORDOÑEZ: Tens of thousands of migrants heard things were changing and started arriving at the border. Children and teens crowded into detention centers. Biden officials blamed the situation on Trump, but they also sent mixed messages about whether it was OK to come to the United States.

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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We are not saying don't come. We are saying don't come now because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible.

ORDOÑEZ: That was Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. His early comments also fueled a political uproar at home. It wasn't only Republicans. Some Democrats were concerned as well.

VICENTE GONZALEZ: That first month or month and a half was pretty dramatic.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, who represents a border district in Texas. He raised concerns, saying the early moves created an incentive for people to come to the border.

GONZALEZ: I'm not against migrants coming to our country. I'm against a disorderly process. And when you have 173,000 people crossing your border, it's clearly not orderly, and it's a problem for communities along the border like ours.

ORDOÑEZ: The Biden administration adjusted. Mayorkas and others stated more clearly that the border was closed. By late March, Biden was taking a tougher stance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: The vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back - are being sent back; thousands, tens of thousands.

ORDOÑEZ: But advocates have grown tired with this shift. Noah Gottschalk from Oxfam argues Biden has kept too many Trump restrictions, and he's disappointed that Biden has not yet made good on another promise - raising the refugee cap.

NOAH GOTTSCHALK: This is just not where we expected to be. You know, there's no doubt that President Biden inherited a deeply broken immigration system, but he's been president from Day 1. Our view is that he can only use that excuse of the last administration's policies for so long.

ORDOÑEZ: The White House says they're working on it. But like so many presidents who have wrestled with this before, Biden has found it's not just tough to satisfy everyone. It's tough to please anyone.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMPRESARIOS' "SIESTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.