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An unprecedented year in immigration, and in anti-immigration rhetoric

Migrants huddling for warmth at an unofficial detention camp in Jacumba, Calif. A record number of people have arrived at the southern U.S. border in the past year.
Ash Ponders for NPR
Migrants huddling for warmth at an unofficial detention camp in Jacumba, Calif. A record number of people have arrived at the southern U.S. border in the past year.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, federal agents encountered roughly 2.5 million migrants at the southern border in 2023.

While debates in the U.S. focus on domestic immigration policy, there's an undeniable reality: The year saw a historic rise in the number of displaced people around the world.

That's apparent at the border and in shelters throughout American cities: a Venezuelan pharmacist sleeping in line to get shelter in New York City; a Kurdish English teacher crossing the California border; a Russian doctor in Tijuana whospoke to NPRwhile in line to request asylum. His sons were entering the age of military service. "Russia is so difficult. I can't describe it," he said. "It's so difficult for me. Catastrofa."

Castastrofa, catastrophe. It's an apt description of the situation for migrants at the border.

President Biden's immigration policy has been two-fold. On the one hand, punish migrants who cross the border without documents by making it more difficult to get asylum. This is controversial because a person fleeing danger might not have time to fill out an application for entry into the U.S.

On the other hand, Biden has also opened more pathways for migrants to apply for legal entry into the U.S. And he's expanded humanitarian parole and temporary protected status.

Many Republicans characterize this policy as a wide open door for immigrants.

Since 2022, Republican Governors have been bussing migrants to Democrat cities across the country. Jose Antonio, from Venezuela, was sent from Texas to New York, where he is now homeless.
/ Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
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Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Since 2022, Republican Governors have been bussing migrants to Democrat cities across the country. Jose Antonio, from Venezuela, was sent from Texas to New York, where he is now homeless.

Starting in 2022 Republicans governors like Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida began busing migrantsto places like New York, Boston and Chicago. They kept doing that in 2023 — despite complaints from city officials. New York alone has received over 150,000 migrants. City leaders say they are at capacity. They've started evicting people from shelters, adding to the city's homelessness problem.

Republican presidential candidates are pointing to all this as fall-out from Biden's bad immigration policy. They are promising to increase deportations, expand detention, and close the border. They also want stricter asylum policies. Former President Donald Trump has pledged that "following the model of President Eisenhower we will use all necessary federal, state, local, and military resources to begin the largest domestic deportation effort in American history."

Among the more controversial Republican candidate promises: ending birthright citizenship. Eliminating birthright citizenship would mean that a child born in the US to an undocumented mother would not be a U.S. citizen. The idea of changing birthright is not new, it's been around for decades, and when Trump proposed it during his last presidency, it became more mainstream. Legal scholars have pointed out that it would be unconstitutional.

"We've got this notion that just kind of developed over the last 40 or 50 years that is completely without any sort of legal authority," says John Eastman, a constitutional law professor at Chapman University and Founding Director of the Claremont Institute's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence.

While Republican candidate promises to crack down on immigration are nothing new, the rhetoric has been unprecedented. Trump recently came under fire for saying immigrants are "poisoning the blood of our country"; DeSantis has said that if elected, he would send the U.S. military into Mexico.

The Biden administration has felt the pressure. Biden is lagging behind Trump in the polls. Since October, he has resumed deportation flights to Venezuela and allowed Texas to continue building the border wall.

But probably the biggest sign of a shift in Biden's stance comes in the current negotiations in Congress. Biden requested aid for Ukraine and Israel, and Republicans responded to by demanding a drastic change in immigration policy, which would make applying for and receiving asylum at the border far more difficult, as well as expanded deportations. Significantly, the White House appears willing to negotiate.

This could mean a major shift in the nation's asylum policy.

Speaking to NPR, Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the Immigrant's Rights Project at the ACLU said: "If we decide we are no longer going to have asylum, after making a solemn promise after [World War II] that we would never send people back to danger, we are looking at...really a momentous moment in U.S. history."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.