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Hope Drives Migrant Surge At Southern Border, Rep. Escobar Says

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar represents El Paso. That's right on the border with Mexico. Good morning, Congresswoman.

VERONICA ESCOBAR: Good morning.

MARTINEZ: I want to play for you some more of President Biden's conversation with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. He had this response to anyone who says that migrants are coming because he's president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The idea that Joe Biden said come, because I heard the other day that they're coming because they know I'm a nice guy and I won't do what Trump did.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They're saying this?

BIDEN: Yeah. Well, here's the deal, they're not.

MARTINEZ: So I want to get your reaction to that. Does the Biden administration have a messaging problem? When you say that, you know, you're going to undo and roll back the policies of the Trump administration, as Joe Biden was saying leading up to the election, how do you do that without encouraging a surge in migration?

ESCOBAR: You know, I think that that kind of conversation, unfortunately, and that kind of focus obscures the bigger issues that Angela just laid out. I spoke with the Border Patrol sector chief and other agents when I was home this weekend. And, you know, one of the things that I learned is that we started seeing an increase in unaccompanied minors dating back to before the election. And last April, we started seeing an increase in families. This is what Border - the local Border Patrol folks shared with me. So this started happening before the election. Now...

MARTINEZ: Right. But Congresswoman, I think that's the point, isn't it? You know, in all the things we kept hearing from Joe Biden, that when he becomes president, things will change at the border, these policies of the Trump administration will change...

ESCOBAR: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: ...I think everyone was hearing that. People in El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico were hearing that. And that's what I'm asking about. Hearing that, how does that not encourage people to start making that journey?

ESCOBAR: Yeah. If folks in the Northern Triangle knew back in April that Joe Biden was not only going to be the nominee but that he was going to be president, that's pretty incredible. But here's the bigger point. And one other thing that I will say, do I doubt that some people have hope and that the hope is driving them? I don't doubt it. I also know that while Donald Trump was president, folks I spoke to on the ground, because I regularly speak to migrants - and by the way, in El Paso, I have yet to meet someone, a migrant, who's told me they came because of Joe Biden.

But what I did hear during the Trump administration was because we heard that there's going to be a wall, we think this is our last chance. I do think that messaging impacts a small percentage of migrants. But generally, if you talk with these families - and Angela laid it out really well - they are absolutely desperate. The individuals are absolutely desperate. I've spoken with a number of children who've made the journey by themselves or with an adult, an aunt, an uncle. And they get separated, unfortunately, because those adults get expelled back into Mexico. The vast majority of those kids are coming to meet a family member and live with a family member. So there's certain factors that it doesn't matter who is in the White House. The drive to get here, the impulse to get here, the necessity to get here, it doesn't change depending on who's in the White House.

MARTINEZ: Well, then let's narrow the time frame a bit here because federal agent encounters with migrants at the border have drastically increased since Joe Biden took office. So how do you explain that?

ESCOBAR: So the - actually, it started before, again, Joe Biden. The data shows that - that I've been shown...

MARTINEZ: Well...

ESCOBAR: ...It started before Joe Biden. Hang on. Let me just finish my thought. It started before Joe Biden was president. And as Angela mentioned in her report, the numbers of adults being encountered includes people who are called, quote, "recidivists," people who have tried to enter multiple times because they're being expelled. What we are seeing a sharp increase in is children. They are no longer being expelled. The Biden administration - after there had been court battles during the Trump administration, the Biden administration has said, we're not going to expel children, small children as young as 1 year old, and to a country where there's no care for them. So I don't blame them for doing that. I mean, that is - we have to adhere by our laws. The problem is we don't have an orderly system because what the Biden administration inherited was absolute chaos and a dismantling of a system.

MARTINEZ: OK. Then on that, did the Biden administration maybe move too fast to undo Trump era policies? Donald Trump had four years. He, along with Stephen Miller, had four years to put these systems in place. Joe Biden is now in day - what? - 56 or 57 of his administration.

ESCOBAR: Yeah. You know, the - I think a lot of advocates would argue that he's not moved quickly enough. Title 42 expulsions are still in place. MPP, although, it has been rolled back, those families, those individuals are coming in at a trickle, 25 at a time. It's the kids that are really hard for the system to handle because the shelter space is not in place. The prior administration did not allow for much of a transition. They also didn't grow out the shelter space necessary for the children that we began seeing in September, those increases. And so it's the kids, that vulnerable population, that's been really tough for the Biden administration to deal with.

MARTINEZ: Right. But everything happening there now with kids sounds exactly the same to what we were hearing about the kids in cages that we saw during the Trump administration. So does the Biden administration shoulder any blame here? It doesn't sound like it from you that they should.

ESCOBAR: You know, there are no - I will tell you, would I like to see the Biden administration move more quickly? Of course, I would. You know, when I visited the central processing center in El Paso on Friday, those are not conditions for children. So you're not hearing someone saying - anyone saying the status quo is good. We are all pushing on the administration to work more quickly, more effectively, but also safely. The - it does take some time for the build-up of shelters. The - you know, the folks who deal with tender-aged children, with any children, they have to have background checks. There are requirements in place to make sure that those facilities are licensed.

Those requirements to make sure that kids are safe are important. Now, the other side of it is releasing kids into the arms of their families. I spoke with HHS on Thursday and ORR. Those are the agencies in charge of the kids once they're released from Border Patrol custody. And we pushed on them. You know, a group of us spoke with them about what's happening. Why aren't you more quickly releasing kids to their families? And they detailed some of the efforts that they have begun.

MARTINEZ: OK.

ESCOBAR: Those are good efforts. It's a great start. There's progress there. It's not enough, obviously. And so my job as a member of Congress is to ensure that I provide the appropriate oversight and that I'm pushing...

MARTINEZ: OK.

ESCOBAR: ...On the administration and officials and that I provide the resources necessary to get this done in a humane way.

MARTINEZ: That's Congresswoman Veronica Escobar from Texas. Congresswoman, thank you very much.

ESCOBAR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "GLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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