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Morning news brief

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

A group of senior officials in the Biden administration are traveling to Mexico today to talk immigration enforcement.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's been an unprecedented increase in the number of migrants at the border. Federal agents encountered roughly 2.5 million this year.

KHALID: NPR immigration correspondent Jasmine Garsd joins us now to discuss. So you are traveling on this trip today. What do you expect will be discussed in the meetings?

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: So Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and White House Homeland Security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall are scheduled to meet with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. And they'll be arriving around the same time as a caravan of thousands of migrants treks through Mexico, heading towards the U.S. border. Now, President Biden already spoke to President Lopez Obrador last week about curbing immigration, and the Mexican president said they are in talks for Mexico to secure its own southern border with Guatemala, as well as to make it more difficult for migrants to move up Mexico. My understanding is that today's trip will be to flesh out the details of that enforcement. And there is a sense of urgency. Right now, there are ongoing negotiations in Congress involving immigration enforcement.

KHALID: Right. Jasmine, those talks in Congress have been going on for some time, but they're certainly ramping up, this question of border security. Tell us a little bit more about that, about what's at stake.

GARSD: Well, of course, we're heading into an election year. And a centerpiece of Republican presidential campaigns has been Biden's immigration policies, which they are calling disastrous. Add to that, recently, President Biden requested wartime aid for Ukraine and Israel. In response, House Republicans demanded that there be a drastic change in immigration policy to make applying for and receiving asylum at the border far more difficult, as well as expanded deportations.

KHALID: So what has the response been from Mexico to all of these suggestions?

GARSD: So this month, the Mexican government halted a program to repatriate and transfer migrants inside Mexico due to lack of funds. President Lopez Obrador has said he's willing to work with the U.S. The Mexican president has also made it clear he wants the Biden administration to ease sanctions on the governments of Cuba and Venezuela. A significant percentage of migrants are from Venezuela. And he wants more aid to Latin America.

KHALID: Jasmine, I want to zoom out away from the politics of this specific moment. You have spent a lot of time at the U.S.-Mexico border covering migrants, covering humanitarian concerns. What are you hearing ahead of these potential policy changes?

GARSD: I have. And what is unfolding at the border is a humanitarian crisis like I haven't seen in my years of reporting. What I've heard is a lot of fear from advocates that it could be a return to Trump-era policies where there was no access to asylum in the U.S. and that delegating immigration enforcement to Mexico has led to serious human rights abuses. Ahead of this meeting, the U.S. Department of State has said it will reaffirm the U.S.'s commitment for the protection of asylum-seekers and, quote, "underscore the urgent need for lawful pathways."

KHALID: NPR's Jasmine Garsd. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us ahead of your busy day of reporting and travel.

GARSD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: The past few weeks, from Syria and Lebanon to the Red Sea and even into Iraq, there have been confrontations between the United States or Israeli troops and militias backed by Iran.

FADEL: They have intensified because of Israel's war against Hamas, as the death toll there in Gaza balloons over 20,000 people. And despite U.S. pressure to ratchet it down, Israeli officials say the war is likely to last, quote, "many months." And this week, things escalated when U.S. troops were injured in Iraq and the U.S. carried out airstrikes on the militia that claimed responsibility.

KHALID: Joining us now from Istanbul to discuss all of this is NPR's Peter Kenyon. Good morning, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KHALID: Peter, let's step back for a moment and describe the bigger picture here. Iran has backed militias all around the Middle East. Why does it do that?

KENYON: Well, this has been one of Iran's preferred ways of projecting its influence in the region. I mean, you don't see Iranian forces being shipped out in large numbers to conflict areas in the Mideast, but what you do see are Iranian-funded militia groups - in action, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, various militias in Iraq and, to some extent, Hamas. Now, Hamas is, of course, in a war with Israel after Hamas members killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7. Iranian officials like to talk about the Axis of Resistance. They mean groups that are fighting to reduce or, if possible, eliminate the American military presence in the region. And it's an arrangement that lends Tehran influence without it getting directly involved in the fighting.

KHALID: So there have been a lot of incidents lately. There seems like there's almost daily shelling or airstrikes between Israel and Hezbollah on the Lebanon border. So what is it that specifically occurred in the last few days that has folks concerned about escalation?

KENYON: Well, in addition to the attacks from Hezbollah in the North, Israel just identified three soldiers killed in Gaza, and Palestinian officials said six people were killed in a drone strike in the West Bank. Beyond that, this recent drone attack on a U.S. base in Erbil in northern Iraq killed at least one American serviceperson, critically wounded another. And that was followed by a U.S. response in Syria that killed a senior Iranian commander. Headlines in Iranian media are still filled with official comments vowing revenge for that.

There's another factor here. That's the threat to shipping in the Red Sea and beyond. Rockets and missiles have been launched at tankers. Iran says they're linked to Israel. It led some firms to send their vessels all the way around Africa, rather than the more direct Red Sea route.

KHALID: Wow.

KENYON: Yeah. And it led the U.S. to send warships to the region to quell the rocket fire and deter others from getting involved. That has some companies possibly considering returning to the Red Sea.

KHALID: All right. So are there mechanisms or negotiations of some sort to keep this all from spiraling out of control?

KENYON: There are certainly plenty of calls for talks. So far, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu has shown no interest in having negotiations right now. He's been warning that the Israeli military could do to Beirut in Lebanon what it's doing in the Gaza Strip if Hezbollah decides to increase cross-border attacks into Israel.

Probably the main deterrence to escalation now is the worry that things could get out of control. The U.S. already has a couple thousand troops in Syria, some 900 in Iraq, doesn't need to see things heating up. Even Iran, which talks a lot about getting other countries involved in the conflict, hasn't forgotten it's surrounded by Gulf Arab states with ties to the U.S. So all sides have something to lose. No one's entirely in control of events. Each attack brings pressure for a response, and the risk of escalation is very real. Diplomats are looking for some means of preventing that.

KHALID: All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks so much for your reporting.

KENYON: Thank you.

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FADEL: It's the top issue for Americans, one that often decides presidential elections - the economy.

KHALID: It's shown some strong signs as of late - receding inflation, low unemployment, better-than-expected job growth, and people are even spending record amounts of money this holiday season. But President Biden does not seem to be benefiting politically. So what is going on here?

FADEL: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is joining us now to tell us. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there. Good to be with you.

FADEL: OK, so let's talk about the politics of all this. What argument is the White House making about how President Biden has contributed to the state of the economy?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, they say that the fundamentals are strong. Inflation's come down. Unemployment continues to be low. And that job growth is pretty strong. But that really isn't filtering down to how Americans feel about the economy. Polls have found that just 1 in 5 people rate the economy as at least good. And they say that they don't like how Biden is handling it.

FADEL: OK, so if there are positive signs for the economy, why do people feel this way?

MONTANARO: I mean, there are a lot of crosscurrents here. You know, the bottom line is I just don't think people look at this in a macroeconomics kind of way.

FADEL: OK.

MONTANARO: I think it's pretty simple. When people see big signs with gas prices higher than they'd like, and when they see that their bill at the checkout counter in the grocery store is 20, $30 higher than they'd paid, you know, say, a year or two ago, then that stings. And it sits with them. You know, even though inflation has receded, that really doesn't mean that the price of your morning coffee and eggs are going back to where they were - just that they're not going up as much as they had been.

You know, plus, the Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates several times over the last two years in an effort to bring down inflation. That's made taking out loans more expensive. So the irony here is that the very tool that's being used to curb inflation is also making buying a house more difficult, and people are blaming Biden.

FADEL: So is there something more going on here than just economics?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of politics at play here, too. You know, whether people think the economy is good or bad isn't just dependent on prices or the unemployment rate. This is also about who you ask and which party is in the White House when you ask. What we found is that when a new administration comes in, there's been a sharp reversal in perceptions of the economy by party. And it's especially true of Republicans.

You know, for example, the Pew Research Center found that at the tail end of the Obama presidency, with unemployment just below 5%, only 18% of Republicans rated the economy as good or excellent. But after Trump took office, Republicans jumped to 81%. With Biden in office, Republicans' views of the economy nosedived again to 10%. Now, sure, inflation went up, obviously, but that kind of whiplash just can't be explained by economics alone, especially considering that inflation was flat between the end of the Obama White House and to Trump's time in office.

FADEL: OK. Well, going forward here, 2024 is an election year. So if voters aren't buying what Biden is selling on the economy, how difficult does that make his reelection chances?

MONTANARO: It's a big problem, especially when only 28% of Democrats in the Pew polling are saying that they think that the economy is good right now. You know, Biden has to hope that the economic good news continues, that inflation continues to come down and that the Fed gets more confident in the fundamentals of the economy, moves to cut rates and makes it easier for people to do things like buying a house or car. But this is not an easy political problem for Biden to solve at all.

FADEL: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: December 26, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this audio story incorrectly stated that a U.S. service member was killed at a base in northern Iraq and that the U.S. responded with a strike in Syria that killed an Iranian commander. In fact, no U.S. service member was killed in northern Iraq and it was Israel that Iran claims fired an air strike into Syria, killing an Iranian commander.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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