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After months of negotiations, a trio of Senators released a bipartisan border deal

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Polls show that immigration and border security are key issues among voters, especially in swing states. And in December, agents arrested about 302,000 people who tried to cross illegally, setting a new record.

For more on this, I'm joined by Doris Meissner. She was commissioner of the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, and she's now with the Migration Policy Institute. That's an independent think tank that tries to improve immigration and integration policies. Good morning.

DORIS MEISSNER: Good morning.

MARTIN: So do you agree that the situation at the border is a crisis? I mean, and what makes it a crisis, and why now?

MEISSNER: It's a crisis primarily because we don't have the resources and we don't have the authorities in place to fully enforce our immigration laws at the border. And as a result, that's bringing people into cities in the country that are not prepared to process and provide assistance for large numbers. So we have a whole system here that needs to be adjusted and needs to be able to handle what is really a new era in migration.

MARTIN: Sure. You know, but while the number of illegal encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border shot up in December - we just gave you that enormous figure - that number declined in the first few weeks of January. You know, why is that?

MEISSNER: Well, it declined because the United States pressed Mexico very hard. I mean, the United States and Mexico have worked together effectively on many aspects of migration pressures, but at the same time, it can be spotty. And the United States really pressed hard that Mexico do more in enforcement of the flows coming through its own country, and Mexico did so - and enforce its own laws more aggressively. That makes a difference.

MARTIN: So, you know, if the Senate proposal doesn't move forward - and as we've been reporting, the House speaker says this is dead on arrival. You know, we'll see about that. But what other options does the president have to address the situation?

MEISSNER: Well, the most important thing about this bill, if it were to pass, are the resources that come with it. The talk, of course, and the discussion is about the changes in the law, and the changes in the law that the bill would make would also make a difference.

These are families. These are people coming from countries far away. And they are, most importantly, people that are asking for asylum. And it's the asylum system and the asylum system being able to work effectively as a part of border control that is really the pinpoint issue here for being able to enforce our laws effectively at the border. And that, of course, means that some people are eligible for asylum, so they should have the opportunity to apply and have their cases heard, and it needs to be done in a way that those who are not eligible can, in fact, be returned to their home countries readily.

MARTIN: And one more thing before we let you go - several Republican governors gathered yesterday at Eagle Pass to support Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and some are offering to send their own National Guard to the border. Are you worried about this? And what legal grounds do states have to manage border security and immigration?

MEISSNER: Well, yes, I am worried about it. It's emblematic of the politicization of this issue that Republican governors are now lining up behind Governor Abbott and his Operation Lone Star and his assertion that he should be, at a state level, enforcing immigration law. National Guard have been at the border for decades when the Border Patrol asks for help and when the Border Patrol and federal authorities ask for help. But when states try to do what's going on in Texas, they don't have the authority to enforce immigration law. So what the National Guard that the state is bringing in are actually doing are essentially physical presence surveillance. And they are, to a degree, helping state of Texas law enforcement on trespassing violations.

But they don't have the legal authority, they certainly don't have the training to be enforcing immigration law, which means to be deciding who is allowed to come into the country, not come into the country, turning them back to Mexico. Mexicans and others that are received back - will only take migrants back through immigration officials, not through state officials. So it really sets up a very messy situation, and it's much more for the purposes of showing muscularity than it is for any real enforcement outcomes that make a difference at the border.

MARTIN: That's Doris Meissner. She's a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute. Doris Meissner, thank you so much for joining us.

MEISSNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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