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News Brief: U.S.-Mexico Border, Cuomo Scrutiny, Spring Break Travel

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Biden administration is asking FEMA for help at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah. More migrants have been crossing, and many of them are kids all by themselves. Now, congressional Republicans say President Biden's policies are to blame, though we don't really know if that's the case or to what degree. Some Republicans are on their way to the border today.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been covering this one. Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: What's FEMA going to be doing at the border?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, for the next 90 days, FEMA is going to help process and take care of these children who are arriving without their parents. It is a clear recognition by the Biden administration of the severity of this crisis. You know, a record number of them are stuck in Border Patrol detention centers that were built for adults. They're supposed to be moved quickly to more appropriate shelters run by Health and Human Services. But, you know, they're arriving faster than the Biden administration can process them and find them beds. And that means more unaccompanied minors are stuck and sleeping in these jail-like facilities. So FEMA is going to help.

KING: And Republicans have been blaming President Biden for this, although, as A pointed out, like, we don't really know what's happening yet, which is often the case. Then there's this group of Republicans going to the border today. What's their plan? What are they doing?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Like you say, I mean, Republicans are trying to use every opportunity they can to paint Biden as not taking it seriously. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy is taking a delegation to the border today. He spoke about the trip outside the U.S. Capitol last week.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: We'll be traveling to the border - myself with the 12 other members - to see firsthand, to come back with solutions, to make sure our border is secure but to make sure we can end this crisis that Biden has created.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, the White House acknowledges some responsibility for the timing of the migration, but Biden officials say what they're doing is undoing the cruel policies of the Trump administration. Their challenge, though, is trying to balance a humanitarian effort while also messaging for migrants not to come. And, you know, just to be clear, these surges appear to be cyclical. There was one in 2014 under President Obama and there was another in 2018, 2019 under President Trump. So the reality is migrants were still coming despite Trump's very harsh policies.

KING: Democrats are trying to pass immigration legislation in Congress. Does this increase in numbers, this recent increase, mean anything for that legislation?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Republicans, you know, are looking to distract Democrats who are taking up legislation to protect DREAMers, farm workers and other immigrants with temporary protections. And there is some urgency involving DREAMers. And those are the undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. There's actually a legal decision coming likely soon from Texas that many believe could upend this whole debate and really put a fire under the seat of President Biden and Congress to find a way to protect this very sympathetic group. People working on the issue, like Todd Schulte, he's president of FWD.us, an advocacy group for immigrants. You know, they are trying to sound the alarm that the Biden administration and Congress need to act with more urgency.

TODD SCHULTE: But ultimately, we have a federal judge in Texas who is going to say DACA is illegal and we have a 6-3 Supreme Court. I don't think we have fully internalized this as a country what that means.

ORDOÑEZ: What he means is people should be prepared for a negative decision in the Supreme Court.

KING: And does that then mean that the comprehensive overhaul that Biden wanted is unlikely to actually happen?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, what is clear is how difficult it would be to pass a comprehensive package that does all the things Biden wants. So House Democrats have decided on a different strategy, a piecemeal strategy, approaching bills that have a better chance of passing.

KING: Bit by bit. OK. White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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KING: All right. New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, has yet another political problem.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, this one has to do with one of his advisers who's been calling local officials in New York state in what seems to be an attempt to see if they're loyal to the governor. Cuomo has been accused of sexual misconduct by six women. And U.S. attorney and the FBI are also investigating whether his administration undercounted the number of people in nursing homes who died of COVID-19.

KING: NPR's Sally Herships has been covering Governor Cuomo. Hey, Sally.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Hey.

KING: Who is this adviser to the governor that's been making phone calls?

HERSHIPS: This adviser is Larry Schwartz. He's also known as New York's vaccine czar. He's the man in charge of distributing vaccines to New Yorkers. The story was first reported by The Washington Post, but several county officials confirmed to NPR that he has been calling local officials to feel out their loyalty to the governor. Marc Molinaro's president of the New York State County Executive Association. He says, in the eyes of these local officials, Schwartz's calls were troubling and that after receiving the calls, three to four executives contacted him or his staff to express their concern and disgust. Here's Molinaro.

MARC MOLINARO: That these calls would be made at all was troubling, that they were made by the individual responsible for really with a great deal of discretion distribution of vaccines was extremely disturbing to them.

HERSHIPS: These calls were coming at a time when support was crumbling for Cuomo. State congressional Democrats were abandoning him. And by last Friday evening, the two U.S. senators from New York, both Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, had both come out and called for Cuomo's resignation.

KING: What are the officials who got the calls saying?

HERSHIPS: Yeah. The officials I spoke to told me it would have been one thing if it was the chair of the Democratic Party who had been making the calls, but that is not who was making them. They were made by the guy who oversees vaccine distribution for the state of New York. And that is a problem. One official who we're not naming because he's afraid of retaliation from the governor's office told me that he and other local county leaders were terrified, that the implicit threat was clear. If you spoke out against the governor, they were worried that their access to the vaccine would be cut off.

KING: Has the governor's office said anything?

HERSHIPS: Well, I received an email statement written by Beth Garvey, acting counsel to the governor. It was mostly focused on the involvement of Larry Schwartz. It said that he had been working, quote, "night and day" throughout the pandemic and that, quote, "any suggestion that he acted in any way unethically or in any way other than in the best interest of New Yorkers is false."

KING: OK, so at this point, these are reports, these are claims. They have yet to be sort of validated. But, I mean, bigger picture here, this is arguably kind of how the Cuomo administration operates or has operated in the past, yeah?

HERSHIPS: It's worth noting that some of the women who say they were harassed and whose complaints are being investigated by the state attorney general say that treatment was part of a larger climate of bullying in the workplace. And Schwartz, in trying to contain the governor's mess, is now being accused of something similar to bullying. Cuomo has a reputation for being controlling and intimidating in the workplace and also having friction with a politician he deals with. And this includes Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York.

KING: Sure.

HERSHIPS: I contacted the attorney general's office, and they are not saying yet if this will be another investigation into the Cuomo administration.

KING: NPR's Sally Herships in New York. Thanks, Sally.

HERSHIPS: Thank you.

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KING: On Friday, we hit a kind of record that is worth noting.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, 1.36 million travelers passed through airport security checkpoints in the U.S. That's the highest number in a year. The CDC is still signaling two thumbs down regarding nonessential travel. But the reality is a lot of people are traveling for spring break.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us, as she often is on Mondays. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK, so the number of people traveling is up, but the number of people getting vaccinated is also up.

AUBREY: Yeah. Nearly 70 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the vaccine. And if you look at the 65-and-up population, Noel, it's nearly two-thirds.

KING: Wow.

AUBREY: Yet there are still thousands of new cases a day as newer strains are more contagious and not everyone is vaccinated.

KING: Does this suggest that attitudes about travel are changing?

AUBREY: Yeah, and not just plane travel. A recent Ipsos poll found 44% of Americans say they have visited friends or relatives over the last week, and even though the CDC guidance is to avoid nonessential travel, clearly, people are on the go.

KING: So given that people are traveling, given that virus numbers are still high or infections are still high, what is the CDC saying people should do?

AUBREY: Well, I mean, because of the increase in vaccinations, the CDC had recently changed its guidelines to green light small gatherings between people who've been vaccinated and those who've not. So many older adults who are first in line for vaccination feel the freedom to visit friends, children, grandchildren. This is easier to do if you live in the same town. But if you must travel, despite the CDC guidance to avoid nonessential travel, several infectious disease experts tell me they're OK with travel, including plane travel, if you're careful. Here's Dr. Emily Landon. She's an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago.

EMILY LANDON: I think it is time for people to begin, especially older adults who haven't seen family in such a long time, I think that actually counts as essential travel at this point from a mental health standpoint. And so I would say that it's totally fine for vaccinated older adults to very carefully take trips in order to see family.

AUBREY: And what she means by carefully is that even if you're fully vaccinated, you continue to wear a mask the whole journey, avoid crowds as much as possible, keep your hands clean, so bring that sanitizer. And if you are a group of friends or you're a family, vaccinated or not, and you've decided to take a spring break trip, experts say you're much better off sticking with the people you live with or those in your social bubble and minimize risks by opting for, say, a quiet campground or beach rather than at crowded resorts. Many universities have canceled the traditional weeklong spring breaks to help prevent the spread of the virus.

KING: There are places in this country that are really big for spring break. I would imagine whether universities cancel plans or not, there are going to be young people who go to places like Florida, like Texas. Are officials in those places acknowledging that they need to get ready for this?

AUBREY: Absolutely. Officials in Miami Beach have been encouraging social distancing, masking, but this is hard to enforce. Here's Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.

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DAN GELBER: If you're coming here to do anything and you think this is an anything-goes place, just don't come here. Please go somewhere else. And if you're going to come here, enjoy our beaches and dine outdoors and wear the mask and be smart. We all want to be safer.

AUBREY: In other words, he's begging people to be on their best behavior.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

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