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Biden speech acknowledges immigration and pathway to citizenship issues


The people watching last night's State of the Union speech include Yalidy Matos, who is at Rutgers, where she studies politics and its intersection with American diversity, things like race and gender. Welcome to the program.

YALIDY MATOS: Thank you so much, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: OK. So given your specialty there in New Brunswick, N.J., what were you watching for?

MATOS: I was really looking to see what Biden had to say about immigration. You know, as an immigration scholar, I wanted to see what the administration was going to say. It's been a tough issue for the administration, so I wanted to see how much he was going to talk about it or how little.

INSKEEP: Well, let's think that through for a moment. This is an issue where there's been very little movement for about a decade. About a decade ago, it was thought there would be bipartisan immigration reform, which didn't happen then, hasn't happened since. The president continues to talk about some pathway to citizenship for millions of people who are in the United States without documents. Republicans have a different view that focuses much more on border security. Did you hear anything new last night?

MATOS: Not really. I mean, I think Biden was - you know, his strategy was a very bipartisan strategy. He focused on his border plan. He talked about his new plan. Briefly, he talked about, you know, Republicans being able to at least find a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, which I think is his sort of plan, you know, trying to get Republicans what they want in terms of border funding and border security and try to get Democrats something that they want - right? - which is this pathway, you know, legalizing DACAmented students.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember, DACA students, DREAMers, these are people who were brought to the United States as children. So not by their own decision, under their own steam. The idea is to legalize them, which is the most popular form of legalization, is it not?

MATOS: Yes, it is. I mean, since 2001, it's been - it's had a majority of Americans wanting to pass a pathway for DREAMers and support among Americans across race and gender and party. And so it is the most likely to get passed. Republicans, of course, would want more border funding, border security, border technology to do that.

INSKEEP: Can you talk me through the concept of a bipartisan agreement on immigration, given what you know about the state of the country, about public opinion, about various positions over time on these issues? Biden was able to sign a bipartisan infrastructure bill. It turned out that Republicans and Democrats agreed on enough to sign a bill that was not as big as Biden might have liked but is a pretty big bill. Biden was able to sign a bipartisan gun regulation this last year, which was very, very minor by the standards of gun control advocates, but there was a narrow slice of agreement. Do you see anywhere that people could stand on that would be bipartisan when it comes to immigration? And if so, what is it?

MATOS: You know, immigration reform I don't see as happening. Maybe that's an incredibly negative view. But I do see this much more narrower path in terms of, like, border funding and the Dream Act. I do think that's possible. Of course, even within the Democratic Party, I mean, you have individuals who might want other things. You know, Biden didn't mention Manchin or Sinema, right? But we know that they've been a little bit problematic within his own party.


MATOS: But, you know, I believe the Dream Act might be something that could have the potential to pass. And, of course, those individuals who are not interested in more border funding or more border security - right? - are not going to be happy about that. But I think that it is a compromise.

INSKEEP: Can I ask about the highlight of this televised speech in some people's minds? President Biden mentioned that some Republicans have, in fact, talked of changes to Social Security and Medicare. Republicans booed because they're not specifically calling for that right now in the current debate, the current crisis. When you listened, given the kinds of people you study, how did that argument sound to you?

MATOS: You know, I thought that his State of the Union was really - the highlight was the economy. It really was the state of the economy for me. You know, he briefly mentioned things like Tyre Nichols and immigration and a pathway to citizenship and Roe v. Wade. But I thought when he talked about the economy, it was good. And I thought that he really went back and forth with Republicans about Social Security, about Medicare and, you know, telling Republicans that they wanted to sunset both of those things and the booing and the back-and-forth. You know, he really did call on them on national television, you know, and said, you know, if that's not what you're saying, then I hope that we're agreeing, right? And so I think that he really put them on blast and said, well, I hope that we can get this done.

INSKEEP: In a couple of seconds, does that debate about retirement speak to younger voters?

MATOS: You know, I wouldn't think so right now.


MATOS: You know, I think that younger voters are really thinking about student loan debt and education and getting a job after college.

INSKEEP: Yalidy Matos. Thanks so much.

MATOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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