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How will issues at the U.S. southern border shape political battles in 2024?

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Even as Texas has stiffened penalties for illegal border crossings, lawmakers in Washington seem no closer to a deal on border security. Immigration is likely to be a key issue in the 2024 election, so we wondered how the political conversation around this major issue has shifted over the past year.

For one perspective, we reached out to Angela Kelley of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. It's a group that advocates for immigrant rights. Our colleague Michel Martin started by asking Kelley how she sees that shift.

ANGELA KELLEY: I think the focus has become much sharper on our southern border and the numbers of folks that are coming to the U.S. for a variety of reasons. We have now four countries in our hemisphere that have very unstable, unworkable governments - Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. But this has also been a year of the untold story about there being legal pathways for people. There's also sponsorship opportunities where Americans have come forward and said, I'd like to sponsor a Ukrainian or an Afghan or a Cuban or a Nicaraguan.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: If you think back over the year, is there one or two things that you think have been particularly consequential in kind of shifting the conversation or focusing our attention?

KELLEY: At the beginning of this year, President Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas did a press conference. They did a lot of media work laying out what was their vision for a combination of carrots and sticks in terms of policies that would seek to deter people from coming to the U.S. without authorization and then also open up legal pathways for people so that they're coming here with a visa - not with a smuggler - which is, of course, a far better approach to immigration in the U.S.

You also saw in May, where an order from the Trump administration that was known as Title 42 that was expelling people right at the border without giving them a chance to explain that they may have been fleeing persecution - that order was lifted, and we all expected there to be a rush of people coming to the U.S., and that didn't happen.

And so I think that there are some lessons from what we've seen unfold over this year that have worked well and others that we need to do more of and some that haven't worked so well that I think could be a playbook, if you will, going forward. We have got a different world in terms of the types and migrants that are on the move, why they're leaving, why they're coming. And we can certainly be a welcoming nation, but we need to have a balance of control and compassion. And I think finding that sweet spot is going to be the challenge for whoever sits in the White House.

MARTIN: What do you think are the politics of this going into 2024? It is clear that kind of a more restrictive attitude toward immigration is something that has been a Republican position certainly since the Trump administration. I mean, I think in years prior, it was very different. But from the Trump era onward, I think a very...

KELLEY: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Restrictive attitude toward immigration seems to be kind of the standard for the Republican Party. And then you see, with the Biden administration, it seems like a much more mixed picture. So how would you describe sort of the politics of this going into 2024?

KELLEY: Yeah, I think that's a fair description of it. Trump, from the day he announced that he was going to run for president in 2015 - the famous words he said coming down the escalator was that - you know, he described immigrants as rapists and as basically bad people. He is really...

MARTIN: Well, not all immigrants - immigrants from some places, I think, would be fair.

KELLEY: Yes, yes. But the description was not a positive one, shall we say, and that certainly hasn't changed. His rhetoric just of a few days ago has been consistent and has been escalating, talking about immigrants as poisoning the blood of the country. That sends shivers down the spines, I think, of a lot of people, whether you're a Democrat or Republican.

And I think that there is a real challenge to find solutions that last and that do balance being a nation that is a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. We need to find pragmatic progressives, centrist conservatives that can come together and mean (ph) and look forward to what would be the right set of policies that ensure that, yes, we are offering humanitarian protection to those who qualify in a way that is fair and in a way that is effective and fast and final. And that is, I think, the heart of what we're trying to figure out at the southern border.

The challenge in doing it today, on the backs of the debate that's happening on the Hill around a funding bill for Ukraine or for Israel - that's not the right venue for having such a difficult conversation, but I think it's inevitable because the system is broken and Americans want solutions, and that's a reasonable demand.

MARTIN: That's Angela Kelley. She's senior adviser with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Angela Kelley, thanks so much for sharing these insights with us.

KELLEY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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