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End of pandemic restrictions may lead to an influx of migrants at the border

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to the other big story we're following. The pandemic-era public health order known as Title 42 expires tonight. It allowed authorities to quickly turn away would-be migrants trying to enter the U.S. It's been widely predicted that the end of Title 42 will encourage many more people to try to enter the U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar is a Democrat from Texas. Part of his district is along the southern border. And he says communities like his are already overwhelmed, and he is not pleased with the administration's response.

HENRY CUELLAR: The administration has given the OK to Border Patrol to start doing street releases.

MARTIN: Our colleague, A Martínez, spoke with Cuellar earlier and asked what street releases could mean for migrants and border communities.

CUELLAR: A street release means that - as you know, Border Patrol has very limited facilities, especially women or unaccompanied kids. Then you have the NGOs and the border communities that help and house and provide some food for these folks so they can go find family members. But now we're seeing that a lot of these people don't have sponsors. So somebody's going to end up paying for this. So if the NGOs or the border communities do not have space to hold them, then the Border Patrol has only one option - and put them out on the streets of Laredo, streets of McAllen, Brownsville, El Paso and other border communities.

These people are coming in in between ports of entry. So they're not going through the CBP app or the ports of entry. So that means that they're supposed to get a notice to appear in front of an immigration judge that is going to be years from now. So the question is, are they going to be able to track these people? And I can tell you right now, no, they're not.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

What would you propose instead of what is happening now?

CUELLAR: Not only add asylum officers there at the Border Patrol facilities, but I would have those immigration judges handle those cases. By law, they're supposed to handle the cases within seven days and review what the asylum officer does, and those can be done quickly. The asylum law says you have to be here because there is a persecution by the state in the country that you're in. And looking for a better life, trying to get away from crime or any of those reasons are not reasons to stay. And I'm sorry, but that's what the law says.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, I know the House has a bill on the table. Republican lawmakers aim to vote on their so-called Secure the Border Act - very restrictive proposal when it comes to asylum, also cuts programs that give migrants a chance to stay. The White House has said that the president would veto it. Are there any parts to that bill, Congressman, that you agree with or support?

CUELLAR: Yeah. I mean, there are some things that we've been working on for many years - you know, adding more money for technology, adding more money to do the roads along the border, adding more personnel, Border Patrol, support staff, all that. The problem is that our Republican friends, with all due respect, never sat down with some of us that live on the border. We don't just go visit the border. And I've talked to some Republicans. And look; this is just a messaging bill for them.

MARTÍNEZ: And the immigration system, Congressman, as you know, has not been reformed in decades. All the measures created seem to be directed at deterring migrants from coming or maybe even short-term solutions. You're in Congress. What kind of reform would you like to see?

CUELLAR: And you're right. This bill that they're doing is just a border security and takes away certain rights of asylum. I feel that we can have sensible border security and still respect the right of legitimate asylum-seekers.

MARTÍNEZ: What would it take for that to happen?

CUELLAR: Immigration reform is something that we've been talking about for many, many, many years. Sometimes I blame the Republicans, but keep in mind that at the beginning of 2009, we had a supermajority in the Senate of Democrats - 60. We controlled the House and the White House. And guess what? Nothing happened.

So we just got to understand that the issue about immigration is not going to go away, and we have to be able to address the issue. And I've been here for a few years, and I voted for a full comprehensive immigration reform, a guest worker plan, DREAMers. And sometimes it's the House that does it; sometimes it's the Senate. But, you know, it just doesn't get there. People are waiting for the perfect bill. It's not going to get there. And if we have to do some incremental steps, I'm now willing to take some incremental steps to address the issues that we need to address.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas. Congressman, thanks.

CUELLAR: Thank you so much. And you have a wonderful day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.