News Brief: Immigration Actions, Japan's COVID-19 Surge, Alexei Navalny
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today, President Biden moves to reverse one of his predecessor's signature acts, one that separated many children from their parents.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Right. So remember that Donald Trump ran on promises to build a giant border wall. He never finished, but he did impose a policy of deliberately separating parents and their kids at the border. When that policy drew outrage, officials blamed it on the Obama administration and then continued to spread disinformation about it. So here are some of the facts. Donald Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, told NPR that the policy was a deterrent to future migrants and that kids would be, quote, "put into foster care or whatever." And then an investigation found Trump's attorney general insisted on arresting migrants in a way that would separate families and didn't pay enough attention to the effects on children. Biden's administration now plans executive orders to change that and other policies.
INSKEEP: Which NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is covering. Franco, good morning.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's Biden going to do differently?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, one of the things that he's going to do is revoke Trump's actions that sought to justify this separation. And the order will create this task force that will work across agencies and interest groups to help track down the missing parents of hundreds of children. The task force will then work on the best way to reunite the kids with their parents.
INSKEEP: I guess we should mention some families were reunited, but in many other cases, federal authorities just kind of threw up their hands, said, gosh, we don't know how to do this or where these people are. Do they know what they're going to do now?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it's a challenging job, you know, because so many of the records aren't all there and officials don't even know how many kids there are or who all their parents are. And there has been a lot of questions about whether the Biden administration will help bring the parents back to the United States, which the Trump administration would not do. A senior administration official told me that reuniting in the United States was one of the options, but that it would be a decision up to the task force.
INSKEEP: What else is Biden announcing on immigration today?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, one directive calls for a top-to-bottom review of Trump's changes to the legal immigration system. And that would include a review of Trump's public charge rule, which prevented immigrants from getting permanent residence, basically green cards, if they were likely to require public benefits. And another takes a close look at border policies. That includes ending requirements that migrants seeking asylum in the United States be forced to wait in Mexico or another third country in Central America. That doesn't mean they can come back. The team needs to put together a new system to process asylum cases, but that's going to take some time.
INSKEEP: So reversing Trump's executive actions is one thing. But Biden himself will face pressure from immigration advocates to do something about immigration reform, which he's already proposed to Congress. Is this going far enough for people?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, there's going to be a lot of pressure. A lot of people - or a lot of activists are concerned he won't fulfill his promises. And these activists, frankly, want Biden to do a lot more to counter all the things that Trump did to make life increasingly difficult for the 11 million undocumented people in the country. Obviously, there are a lot of pressing issues right - COVID, climate, racial equity. And these activists want to make sure immigration is not lost in the shuffle. But the Biden team says these executive actions are just a start.
INSKEEP: Franco, can you bring us up to date on another news development? Of course, Congress and the White House have been discussing different sizes of COVID relief plans. And a bunch of Republican senators went to the White House yesterday. How'd it go?
ORDOÑEZ: Right. They had an over-two-hour meeting with a group of Republican senators. They were led by Maine's Susan Collins. It's a big task trying to bridge a trillion-dollar gap between the proposals. And while they didn't reach a deal that wasn't necessarily expected, what did happen, though, was the two sides said they plan to keep on talking.
INSKEEP: Franco, we'll be following you for updates, really appreciate it.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: OK. Japan is extending its state of emergency in an effort to stem a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
KING: So all foreign nationals will remain banned from entering the country. There are restrictions on how restaurants can operate. All of these emergency restrictions are devastating the economy, but Japan still hasn't gotten the virus under control.
INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been following the story. He's in Seoul, South Korea. Hey there, Anthony.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: So Japanese officials get really concerned when they start running out of ICU beds. Is that happening?
KUHN: Yes. Hospitals in Japan are overwhelmed. They're operating in over 100% capacity. And that means that COVID and other patients are not getting any treatment. And many doctors in Japan see this as a crisis for Japan's entire health care system. Let's listen to Dr. Hideaki Oka, who's an infectious diseases expert at Saitama Medical University Hospital just outside Tokyo.
HIDEAKI OKA: (Speaking Japanese).
KUHN: He tells us, "our staff are now battling this COVID situation with outbreaks and with lots of stress. I'm afraid more of them will leave their jobs if this situation continues. Japan's health care system is going to be destroyed by human resource and finance problems." Now, what he's talking about is really a surprising situation because Japan is such an affluent society and they have about four times the number of doctors to population that the U.S. does. And they've had far fewer deaths than the U.S. The problem is they don't have enough ICU beds, and they don't have enough doctors to man those beds. And they have an excellent national health insurance plan that just does not pay well for COVID patients. So a lot of private hospitals are just not taking them.
INSKEEP: Anthony, this is a bit surprising because I think if we checked in on Japan three months ago or six months ago or nine months ago, we would have said they were doing better than a lot of countries in handling the pandemic. What went wrong?
KUHN: Well, we've seen case numbers spike in a third wave as young people are driving case numbers up and old people are increasingly get infected and becoming serious cases. Now, we have, according to the health ministry, more than 35,000 confirmed COVID patients staying at home. That number has quadrupled over the past month, and many of them have died. Japan is still not testing at the numbers it needs to, and this has been a big problem.
INSKEEP: Was it a difficult decision, despite all that, for the government to extend these emergency moves?
KUHN: It sure was because they're seeing a lot of small businesses go bankrupt. They've seen the Suga administration's public support take a beating, and they have the Olympics coming up. The emergency will be extended to March 7, which will put them just 18 days from the scheduled start of the Olympic torch relay, which is really too close for comfort.
INSKEEP: Is the vaccine coming quickly enough to Japan? Are vaccines coming quickly enough to Japan to make a difference?
KUHN: No, they cannot count on these to reduce the numbers. In order to get the state of emergency lifted, they've got to lower the alert level from its highest level, which it's at now. And that means bringing down case numbers and freeing up hospital beds. Unfortunately, they can't count on help right now from vaccinations because they haven't begun. They're not even going to start vaccinating health care workers until later this month.
INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn, thanks so much, really appreciate it.
KUHN: You're welcome, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: OK. The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is in a Moscow courtroom today.
KING: Yeah. There's TV footage that shows him wearing a blue hoodie and at times joking with his wife, Yulia, joking despite the fact that this is a very serious situation. The court is considering whether to put him in jail for up to 3 1/2 years. He's accused of violating his parole on an old conviction. Now, the European Court of Human Rights says that conviction was politically motivated.
INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is following this story from Moscow. Hey there, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: I just want to note, if somebody goes into federal court in the United States, it's very unlikely there's going to be live TV footage. Is that happening where you are, and what's the scene?
KIM: Well, there's no footage of the actual hearing, but there is footage from around the courthouse. And that scene is really crazy. It looks like a dangerous terrorist is on trial here in Moscow. A huge security presence - the courthouse is under lockdown. There are lots of riot police patrolling the vicinity. And we already have reports that at least 100 arrests have been made, mostly of young people basically being randomly detained, which follows a pattern I observed at protests over the weekend. Steve, almost 2,000 people have now been arrested in Moscow since Sunday, and activists say the jails are just overflowing.
INSKEEP: Well, what are the odds that Navalny will be sent to prison for violating parole on this conviction that outsiders have questioned to begin with?
KIM: Most people would say the odds are very high. The conviction rate in Russia is more than 99%, and judges are largely seen as an extension of the executive branch. This particular case he's being, you could say, retried for is an old embezzlement conviction that, as you said, the European Court of Human Rights has already ruled was unfair. The Russian government has even had to pay compensation to Navalny. But still, the authorities are now claiming that Navalny violated the terms of his parole when he was recovering from his poisoning in Germany. And they're asking for the old suspended sentence to be converted into a real sentence of 3 1/2 years.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk through what, if anything, might influence the situation here. You're telling us that the courts are largely an extension of President Vladimir Putin's government, which clearly does not like Navalny. But there is this international protest. The United States has spoken up, European powers have spoken up. There are European human rights officials who have opinions about this. Is the Kremlin worried at all about international blowback?
KIM: Well, I think they should be. There are growing calls in Europe to stop the construction of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which connects Russia to Germany. Navalny's own team has come up with a list of Russian businessmen and officials they think should be sanctioned in the West. And the new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has criticized the Russian government for its treatment of Navalny and the protesters. President Putin's spokesman has said the Kremlin won't take any instructions from the United States. And the Russian government is branding Navalny and his supporters as foreign agents who are just doing the bidding of Russia's enemies.
INSKEEP: Although I guess if we're going to call them foreign agents, there must be a lot of them because there have been quite a few protests and thousands of arrests in recent weeks, right?
KIM: Yeah, and the laws have been changed here in Russia, allowing the government basically to brand anyone they want to as a foreign agent.
INSKEEP: Lucian, thanks so much for the update, really appreciate it.
KIM: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.