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Biden said he'd stop building the border wall, but is now going ahead on one piece

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When President Biden was running for office, he pledged to stop work on the wall. The wall on the southern border had been a signature policy of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. But this week his administration said, in fact, it is moving forward with a piece of that wall in Texas. Two of our correspondents are here to talk about why this is happening and what it means politically for Biden. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration, and Asma Khalid is our White House correspondent. Good to have you both here.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: It's good to be here.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Joel, let's start with you. Where exactly is this segment of border wall? And why has it become this big flashpoint?

ROSE: Yeah, this is a segment of up to 20 miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, rural Starr County, just outside of McAllen, which has been a big crossing hotspot this year. The planning for this has been in the works for years. The money was actually appropriated during the Trump administration, but it became a big deal this week when the Biden administration put a notice in the Federal Register saying that it would waive more than two dozen environmental laws to build this segment of wall. It is not the first border wall that's been built under the Biden administration. They have completed some other sections. But it would be the first major segment to begin construction on his watch. And as you've noted, this is a reversal of some of his earlier promises, and that has touched off a lot of anger.

SHAPIRO: So, Asma, how did the White House justify this? What are they saying?

KHALID: Yeah, well, I was at the White House yesterday. And we went into the Oval Office for a few minutes to cover this meeting that the president was having with a couple folks within his national security team. And he was pressed on why he's agreeing to build this new chunk of wall, despite the fact that he pledged during the 2020 campaign not to do this. And I think we should hear the president's response in his own words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The border wall money was appropriated for the border wall. I tried to get them to reappropriate it to redirect that money. They didn't. They wouldn't. And in the meantime, there's nothing under the law, and they have to use the money for what it was appropriated.

KHALID: So are you basically what he was saying is that Congress has the power of the purse. They directed the money to be spent on this, and he had to comply with the law. It is a message that he reiterated earlier today as well - that basically, his administration had no choice in this matter. He was also asked by a reporter if he believes the border wall works. And he said simply, no. This White House went through great lengths, I would say, in the last 24 hours to say that this is not an administration change in policy. They do not believe the border wall is effective. They think other, you know, tools, technology and surveillance would be more effective uses of this money. But ultimately, they say they have no choice.

I want to say one last thing, Ari, here, and that is that the way that this was all rolled out, the Federal Register notice did cause a lot of confusion. And this really dominated the White House press briefing yesterday. And I don't think the White House has been or was very clear about why it was doing it at this particular moment.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk about how this fits into the Biden administration's border policy. Joel, can you put this development in context for us?

ROSE: Yeah. Well, so Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also insisted yesterday that this is not a shift in policy when it comes to border walls. He said, quote, "There will be no more wall construction," unquote. That said, the administration is very much trying to get illegal border crossings down. Those crossings were lower for a while over the summer after the administration rolled out some new legal pathways and tougher enforcement measures at the border. But now crossings are climbing again sharply, near the record numbers that we saw last year. And a single-month record of 50,000 Venezuelan migrants crossed in September fleeing from economic and political turmoil there. The Biden administration said yesterday, by the way, that it will resume deportation flights directly to Venezuela, but it is not clear how many flights there will be or if that's really going to have much of an effect on migration.

KHALID: Yeah, and if I can jump in here, I mean, the president has been under enormous pressure on this issue of immigration, of course, from the right but also now from Democratic mayors and governors who are saying that their cities are overwhelmed, their resources are overwhelmed with just the sheer number of migrants who have been arriving. And in recent weeks, there've actually been a flurry of meetings between top White House officials and some of these governors and mayors, Democrats.

SHAPIRO: And President Biden is, needless to say, running for reelection. So talk about the politics of this. How is this likely to play with constituents?

KHALID: I think the real place where this could potentially pose a challenge for Biden is with the progressive wing of his own party, younger Democratic voters. They are disappointed that he did not choose, they say, to slow walk this border wall, that even if he had to comply with it, is there not some way in which he could have maybe just may - kind of let the clock run out here? For example, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said yesterday that the Biden administration did not have to waive the environmental laws to expedite this process.

I will say the White House is extremely sensitive to the fact that young voters are a key part of their coalition that they need for Biden to win reelection. There's been a whole slew of things that they've announced recently - I'm thinking of the Climate Corps, this Gun Violence Prevention office - that really are issues that matter to young voters. I don't really know how this will all play out. I will say, though, that the challenge Biden faces, I think, on immigration is that it's an issue where he's pushed on the right, but he's also pushed from different flanks of his own party. And they don't all agree on what to do.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Asma Khalid and Joel Rose, thank you both.

KHALID: Thank you.

ROSE: Thanks. 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.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.