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Rep. Mike Levin on why Democrats wrote to Biden urging action on the southern border

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A group of House Democrats sent a letter to President Biden this week, urging him to take executive action along the U.S.-Mexico border. We urge you to use all tools at your disposal, said their note, organized by Representative Angie Craig of Minnesota, including executive action to better address security at the southern border, interdict illicit fentanyl and allow for orderly legal immigration. Representative Mike Levin of Orange County, Calif., is another one of the Democrats who endorsed the letter, and he joins us now. Representative Levin, thanks so much for being with us.

MIKE LEVIN: Good to be with you, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: How would you have President Biden, as your letter calls it, strengthen enforcement at the border?

LEVIN: Well, I'm speaking to you just after visiting our Border Patrol agents at the Campo Border Patrol station out in East County, San Diego. And I can tell you that since our letter from just a number of days ago, I was encouraged to see the president's executive action giving Border Patrol agents the ability to deport those immigrants who don't pass a background check. And I think that was the spirit of our letter.

Our border obviously is overwhelmed. Our Border Patrol agents who are working really, really hard are overwhelmed. But we, for the time being, are left with no choice but to call on the president to take executive action in the absence of good bipartisan good-faith negotiations.

SIMON: Congressman Levin, your district, California's 49th, is at its closest about 30 miles from that border? What do you and your constituents feel they see on the ground that are directly attributable to the border?

LEVIN: We did see street releases in our district. Fortunately, those have stopped, but we still do see an overwhelmed southern border. So I think what we need is to get back to the negotiating table and the bipartisan border security bill that had been negotiated a couple of months back by Senator Murphy and Lankford and Sinema, actually, is a very good place to start, But we need more than that.

We need more than just enforcement. We need pathways to citizenship for immigrants who've been living in the country for a long time. We need work permits for our DREAMers, and the other thing that's very clear is we've got to hire more Border Patrol. The good news is in the new fiscal year '24 budget, there is money to hire up to 22,000 Border Patrol agents, which is up from about 16,000 now. That's a good thing.

SIMON: I want to ask you about the number of times your letter seems to tie the fentanyl crisis to the border.

LEVIN: Yeah.

SIMON: Because as NPR and some other news organizations have reported, close to 90% of the illicit fentanyl is actually seized at official crossings, brought in by people who are authorized to cross the border, not migrants seeking asylum.

LEVIN: Correct.

SIMON: So is it accurate to tie the fentanyl crisis to security at the border?

LEVIN: I think it is in the sense that you've got - 90% or so of the fentanyl coming across is being brought across by U.S. citizens, and it's also being brought across through the ports of entry, not in between the ports of entry. The problem is the Border Patrol and CBP, they have to deal with all of it, so they don't have the luxury of just dealing with the ports of entry or just dealing in between the ports of entry. Getting them more resources so that they can address the situation that I just saw out in between the port of entry will help - ultimately will help - with the fentanyl situation as well.

SIMON: 'Cause I don't have to tell you, journalists have pointed out that the group of 15 Democrats who have signed this letter all seem to be facing tough reelection campaigns and have suggested that's kind of the inspiration for their letter. Would you agree?

LEVIN: I would strongly disagree. I think it's really important to understand there are a whole host of Democrats and Republicans who are tired of the partisanship around this issue. They are tired of people using hatred and fear to talk about immigrants and really to embolden the worst instincts of people, the extremism, by doing so. I think that folks in both parties are really upset that Donald Trump and Mike Johnson doing Trump's bidding sabotaged a really strong border security bill from becoming law.

Look, nobody should be playing politics with border security. It is a national security issue. It is a nonpartisan issue, and people who would score political points are doing a disservice to their constituents and to our national security.

SIMON: May I ask you about your family background?

LEVIN: Sure.

SIMON: Jewish father, Mexican Catholic Mother.

LEVIN: You did your homework, Scott (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

LEVIN: So my mom's parents, they came to the United States when they were very young through El Paso, Texas, you know, never graduated high school. They had four daughters, including my mom. All four of the daughters graduated college, and my grandpa decided to become a U.S. citizen at age 50. I know it was the proudest day of his life. My grandma stayed a permanent resident all the way until when she passed. And, you know, they worked really hard. They played by the rules. They did everything right. And sometimes, Scott, I wonder whether a story like that's even possible today.

I know that in order for it to be possible, we need to ensure there are safe legal ways for people to migrate into the U.S. We're also making it harder to come here illegally, and we need to provide a pathway to citizenship for those who meet the qualifications for those who pass the background check, who pay taxes, and that's what America has been and can be again if we're willing to come together and actually fix the broken immigration system, as opposed to playing politics with it.

SIMON: Mike Levin, Democratic congressman from California. Thanks so much for being with us.

LEVIN: Thank you, Scott. Appreciate it. 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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.