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Biden Defends His Response To Migrants At The Border And COVID-19 In Press Conference

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden held the first press conference of his presidency today. He faced a wide range of questions, particularly about the arrival of Central American migrant children at the southwest border. Joining us to talk about that and much more, we have NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, Franco Ordoñez and NPR's health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Good to have you all here.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Ayesha, I want to start with you, because you were there in the room today, which looked very different from any press conference I ever attended as a White House correspondent. Tell us what it was like.

RASCOE: It definitely was different because of the coronavirus. Usually, we're packed in there like sardines, as you know. But this time, we were spread out far apart, about 6 feet apart. So there was a different feeling to it. You know, but compare - and also compared to the last administration, it wasn't a free for all. You know, it wasn't people screaming, trying to get the president's attention. It was very orderly. And President Biden seemed to, you know, pick his names from, you know, go through a list of reporters. So there was an orderly feel to it.

President Biden was at times very passionate about defending his policies, making an impassioned case about, you know, what was happening at the border and saying that the administration was doing their best job to deal with it. He was also full of facts and figures. He had extensive notes. And sometimes the answers were very long at times. They were almost like a filibuster to some of the questions. But it was - he sounded like he had been very well prepared or very studied up for this occasion.

SHAPIRO: It took him longer to get to this press conference than past presidents. And then he spent about an hour answering questions. And as we mentioned, Franco, many of those questions were about what's happening at the border, where there's been this surge of migrants, particularly unaccompanied children. What did he say about that?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. He was asked whether his softer, more humanitarian approach to migrants is frankly opening the door for people, especially children, to come to the United States. He denied this, saying, quote, "nothing has changed" and that Trump faced similar situations at the border. I'll just note that there are strong similarities in the trends, but the numbers are increasing at a faster pace now than they did in 2019 and 2020, and if they continue, we'll reach some new records. But Biden also made a strong distinction here in his approach between unaccompanied children and other migrants. Let's hear a little bit about what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The idea that I'm going to say, which I would never do, if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border we're just going to let them starve to death and stay on the other side. No previous administrations did either, except Trump. I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to do it.

ORDOÑEZ: He really emphasized he's going to take care of the children. And he also emphasized that this administration is working to create more space for the children to get them out of these controversial Border Patrol facilities. And that includes making 5,000 beds available at Fort Bliss in Texas. But again, that was about children. The other migrants, adults, for example, he delivered some of the strongest language yet, saying that he was going to be negotiating with Mexico and saying that the United States is going to be sending back every other migrant. He really delivered a message to not to come and that the border is closed.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's talk now about the coronavirus pandemic. And, Selena, I think everybody was surprised that he did not get more questions about it, but he did make some news there. Tell us about what he said.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, it's true. The pandemic seemed to be overshadowed by other issues, even though Biden seemed to want to talk about it. He made the point a few times. This is the most urgent issue - ending the pandemic as quickly as possible. He did make news, as you said. He said that, although his initial goal was for 100 million shots to be administered in his first 100 days, they met that early. And now they're doubling the goal to 200 million shots in the first 100 days. So President Biden has five weeks left at the current pace. It should be doable. They're at about an average of about 2.5 million shots per day. There are three vaccines available. Manufacturing is ramping up. So, you know, if the current pace just kept going, then the goal would be achievable.

But I think the challenge may actually be demand. The first 100 million shots, demand was incredibly high. Doses were just getting snapped up. And the second 100 million shots might be really different. You might reach the point where there are more doses than there are people lining up to get vaccinated. And even though that might be hard to picture right now, with demand still super high in most places, that is the challenge that public health officials are starting to worry about.

SHAPIRO: And the president also talked about his goal to get most schools, especially K-8 schools, back to in-person learning in his first hundred days. This has been a big challenge for the administration, and the CDC changed its initial guidance for schools when it ran into political blowback a few weeks ago. Tell us about that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. Many schools were relieved and said they would reopen after CDC reduced the space needed between students to 3 feet. This is for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. In high school, they're still saying that in some places you might want to keep them 6 feet apart, but a lot of schools just don't have that kind of space. So the reduction to 3 feet apart is a big boon to schools that want to reopen. Biden administration also asked states to prioritize educators and school staff for vaccinations, and that seems to be happening in a lot of places. Last week, also, the White House announced ten $10 billion to expand testing for schools.

So what Biden said today in the press conference is that they're close to the goal of having a majority of schools open for in-person learning five days a week in his first 100 days. So it's now currently 42%, according to NPR's Cory Turner. But he also points out that 33% of students are actually attending full-time in person. And there are racial inequities that play too. Mostly white rural schools are more likely to be open. Black and Latino students are more likely to be going to school virtually. So there's still a long way to go before school is really back in business.

SHAPIRO: Ayesha, I want to turn back to you to ask about gun violence, which is an issue that President Biden campaigned on. He handled it when he was vice president to Barack Obama. And, of course, we saw two mass shootings just in the span of a week leading up to this press conference. So what did Biden say today about that?

RASCOE: He actually was not asked very much about gun control, and it was surprising. When he was asked about it, he only said that he hopes to take a range of measures, legislative and executive actions. But then he immediately pivoted to talking about timing and he talked about infrastructure. So he seemed to make clear that right now his focus is going to be on infrastructure and not necessarily on gun control. And he'll likely face some pushback on that.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, Franco Ordoñez and Selena-Simmons Duffin.

Thanks to all three of you.

RASCOE: Thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

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