House to take up immigration reform bills this week amid migrant border surge

House Democrats are preparing to vote on two immigration reform bills that would help create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. It comes as the Biden administration struggles to accommodate a surge of migrant children at the border. Los Angeles Times immigration and security reporter Molly O'Toole joins "Red and Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano with details on what the legislation would do, and how the U.S. asylum process has changed over the years.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: House Democrats are preparing to move forward with legislation that could provide legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants. The House will take up two separate measures on Thursday. It comes as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says southwest border crossings are on track to reach the highest levels seen in 20 years. Earlier this week, the administration deployed FEMA to help care for thousands of unaccompanied minors being held in government-run facilities.

For more, let's bring in "Los Angeles Times" immigration and security reporter Molly O'Toole. Molly, welcome. Thanks very much for being with us. So the measures that Democrats are putting forward would not address the surge of migrants at the southern border that is happening right now. What historically happens, Molly, when the system simply can't hold all of these people?

MOLLY O'TOOLE: Well, we've actually seen-- I mean, if you look at the numbers at the border, obviously the word crisis gets thrown around a lot and depend-- depending on who's doing the throwing and who's in the White House at the time. But for example, we saw a surge or an uptick that happened in 2019 under the Trump administration. That's when there were actually very restrictive immigration policies had already been put into place under the Trump administration. You still saw that surge.

Now what's key here and then is who is coming. The US immigration system on the whole is still largely geared towards single adult Mexican males. So when you look at facilities, holding facilities immediately on the border, which are under Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection, they are not geared towards single unaccompanied minors, and they're not really geared towards families. They're not geared towards kids.

So that's the challenge that's going on right now is there is an increase in unaccompanied minors, in particular, and those facilities just aren't suited to hold them. And in part because of pandemic restrictions, the administration is having a difficult time getting them out of Border Patrol custody in that 72-hour window that's required by law, getting them into facilities under Health and Human Services that are geared towards unaccompanied children, and then eventually, ultimately, for many of them, getting them to sponsors, parents, family members, relatives who are in the United States. So you really have to look at who is coming, and that tells you a lot about what we're seeing at the border now.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, in the longer term, Molly, what are Democrats in Congress and the president planning to do to create pathways to citizenship?

MOLLY O'TOOLE: Well, once again, we have another revived debate around comprehensive immigration reform. It was pretty interesting that the Biden administration really came out swinging with a very aggressive proposal for a kind of a kitchen sink bill that would really have it all. I mean, it promises a path to citizenship for millions of people, 11 million undocumented people already in the United States, and then several other million people who, for example, work in agricultural fields who have temporary protected status, Dreamers, many people who would be targeted by that bill.

But as we can see just this week, the House is taking up certain measures, popular measures, that are sort of spun off from that proposal that the Biden administration talked about in its first days. And senators, even Democratic senators, have acknowledged that there isn't really a path forward for that kind of sweeping comprehensive immigration reform bill that people have really been-- that lawmakers have been trying to pass for decades.

But they do think that there's an appetite for some of these sort of breakaway pieces of legislation, such as a more permanent fix for Dreamers, a fast track to citizenship for agricultural workers who are really on the front lines during COVID, for example. It's unclear what kind of Republican support they're going to be able to get. I think with all the visits that we've seen to the border this week and the kind of rhetoric that's coming out of the situation at the border, it's clear that immigration continues to be a very divisive political issue.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Very divisive. Republicans are seizing the moment to criticize President Biden's immigration policies. So Molly, what are they proposing?

MOLLY O'TOOLE: Well, that's a really interesting thing. I mean, we saw Senator John Cornyn, for example, who's one of the highest-ranking Republican senators, we saw Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, in the Republican leadership in the House, both have been to the border over the last few days, a lot of criticism calling this-- the Biden administration's border crisis, sort of using this language talking about open borders, for example. We haven't heard a lot of solutions.

And it is really important to note the facts of what's going on at the border. You still have the vast majority of people coming who are actually single adult Mexican males, as we talked about. Unaccompanied minors and families pose a particular challenge to the US immigration system. But you also have the policy known as Title 42, which was implemented by the Trump administration to help respond-- purportedly to help respond to the situation with COVID.

Under that policy, which the Biden administration has kept, more than 80% of those coming to the border right now are being quickly expelled without any real processing or access to protection. And that was a policy that was shared by both the Trump administration and the Biden administration. So this sort of attempt to use the unaccompanied minors as a political wedge and sort of put that entirely on the Biden administration is not quite accurate, when really, this surge that we're seeing now in unaccompanied minors, but also sort of this overall surge, it actually really started last year, around spring time of last year in 2020.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Secretary Mayorkas also placed part of the blame on the former Trump administration, who he said, quote, "completely dismantled the asylum system." Molly, is that an accurate assessment?

MOLLY O'TOOLE: It is, in many ways. It was a long-held goal by the Trump administration. He campaigned really on the issue of restricting immigration, both legal immigration and illegal. You-- we should note that the right to claim asylum-- granting migrants the right to claim asylum-- excuse me-- is enshrined in US law, whether they cross at a port of entry or between a port of entry.

This was a major target of the Trump administration. They implemented more than 1,000 policies to restrict immigration. And it's really from-- from large and-- from large to small. Some of those policies are familiar, such as "Remain in Mexico," which forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico on hearings in the United States, policies known as metering that basically didn't even let them get to the point where they could claim asylum at the port of entry.

And then this Title 42 policy, which, really, is one of the most restrictive policies that's ever been put in place at the US-Mexico border that, interestingly, the Biden administration has kept, which basically, under a [INAUDIBLE] order from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the name of the COVID-19 response, it essentially doesn't allow migrants access to any form of protection or asylum at all and simply expels them very quickly.

So all of those policies that were put in place sort of work together in this interlocking system that essentially closed the border to asylum seekers in particular, and really to most migrants, especially since March of last year when Title 42 went into place. So they are accurate to say that there is a lot of work to be done in rebuilding the asylum system. But certainly, the Biden administration has also made a calculated choice to keep Title 42 in place.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, but it's an issue that has continued to stymie many presidents over the decades, really. We'll see if there's any movement, even piecemeal movement, on this front. Molly O'Toole. Molly, thank you very much.

MOLLY O'TOOLE: Thanks for having me.