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News Brief: Biden Mends Fences, California Reopens, Border Separations

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

President Biden is wrapping up his work in Brussels today, but he already has his eyes on Geneva.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Which is where he'll sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow. President Biden is looking to set some red lines on hacking and human rights and election meddling and many other things. The president says he knows who he's up against.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I have met with him. He's bright. He's tough. And I have found that he is a - as they say, when you used to play ball, a worthy adversary.

INSKEEP: And as he meets Russia's longtime leader, Biden would like to be coordinating his approach with U.S. allies in Europe, who he is meeting today.

MCCAMMON: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez joins us now from Brussels. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So what's on today's agenda?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Biden and the European leaders are going to launch a new Trade and Technology Council. The idea is to address issues together, like regulation for technology platforms and how to reform the World Trade Organization. And trade has been a point of tension. For example, there are still some U.S. tariffs on European exports of steel and aluminum. These were put in place by former President Donald Trump, and they really offend some European allies. I got to ask Biden about this just before he landed in Brussels.

How do you justify that? And what are your plans?

BIDEN: One hundred and twenty days - give me a break. I need time. Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you, guys. Thank you so much. Thank you, guys. Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: So he's saying he hasn't had enough time yet since taking office to work all this out in. And a White House official told me last night that talks are ongoing, but it's not going to be resolved overnight.

MCCAMMON: And we've heard a lot on this trip about improved relations with U.S. allies. But it does sound like there's been some tension, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. I mean, there's no doubt that European allies are happy that some of chaos of the Trump years are gone, and they're happy that Biden is committed to working with them on a joint approach to the big issues. But there have been tensions on how aggressive to go in some areas, like China, for instance. I talked to Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund. She told me allies are worried that it could backfire on them.

BONNIE GLASER: Well, we have seen a growing tendency in China to retaliate against countries that criticize it.

MCCAMMON: And what about Russia? Are the allies concerned about this meeting between Biden and Putin tomorrow?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, not according to Biden. He spent a lot of time talking to them about their concerns, including the NATO members, who are next-door neighbors to Russia. He said he heard nothing but thanks from NATO members.

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BIDEN: Every single one that spoke - and I think there were probably about 10 or 12 that spoke to it - saying they were happy that I did that.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he was asked yesterday about his strategy for Geneva. He said he didn't want to tip his hand, but he said that he would talk about it at a press conference after he meets with Putin.

MCCAMMON: And then President Biden will fly back to Washington. What's the White House saying about how they see the trip resonating at home?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, they're spending a lot of time thinking about that. You know, Biden and his advisers have said they want to do a better job connecting foreign policy with domestic policy. You know, they were alarmed that so many Americans heard something that they liked about the America First approach of Trump. And they know they need to show how doing these things, the G-7, NATO, this European summit, connects directly to people's lives. Does it make their lives better? Does it make their lives safer? So in many ways, the hardest part of this trip is really to come when they get back home to the United States.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez checking in from Brussels. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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MCCAMMON: California is reopening today.

INSKEEP: Governor Gavin Newsom is lifting most of the restrictions from the height of the pandemic. Fifteen months ago, you may recall Newsom was among the first governors to order residents to stay home. Just six months ago, California saw some of the highest numbers of new infections in the United States. All that has changed.

MCCAMMON: Jackie Fortier, health reporter at member station KPCC in Los Angeles, joins us now. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Hey.

MCCAMMON: California, as you know, is one of the last states to lift pandemic restrictions. What exactly is going to be different as of today?

FORTIER: There are three big changes. Masks are no longer required for vaccinated people in most situations. The stay-at-home order is gone. And the color-coded tier system that restricted businesses disappears. It's a big change for Tommy Mofid. He owns The Wrigley Tavern in Long Beach. Since the bar was allowed to reopen in April, he's only been permitted to let half the usual number of people in. But today, he goes back to full capacity.

TOMMY MOFID: I'm ecstatic. I feel like June 15 is going to allow us to go back to somewhat of a normal business plan.

FORTIER: Now that he's expecting more customers, he wants to hire a bartender and servers. He's been taking out ads and asking around for months.

MOFID: When I went to the store across the street to buy a help wanted sign, they had sold out. I really don't know what could cause a shortage in bartenders in Southern California because I have never known that to be the case. But today, there is.

FORTIER: He's also got another decision to make - whether to ask his customers to mask up.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, and California's masking guidelines have been in flux for weeks. What's happening with those now? Can people just take them off?

FORTIER: Well, unvaccinated people are supposed to wear a mask indoors, but businesses can decide whether to enforce that. They have three options for their customers - require everyone to wear a mask, rely on the honor system or use a vaccine verification system, which is supposed to launch later this month. So I'd say people should keep those masks handy. If places they go allow it, vaccinated customers can go back to the gym or sit at a bar next to a stranger without a mask on. But we could see no mask, no service signs. Mask rules for workers gets more complicated. After a lot of pressure from business groups, state regulators are expected to pass rules this week allowing fully vaccinated workers to go without a mask.

MCCAMMON: And of course, those vaccines are the big reason so much of the country has been able to open up. How's California doing with vaccinations?

FORTIER: Over half of people are fully vaccinated. That puts it ahead of the rate of the U.S. as a whole and puts us ahead of Texas and Florida. Wealthy areas are continuing to get the shots, but vaccinations are trending down in lower income neighborhoods. Latinos and Black residents are behind the rates for whites and Asians. The lowest rates are among Latinos.

MCCAMMON: Of course, we've seen so much improvement when it comes to the pandemic. But what plans are in place there in California if things were to get bad again?

FORTIER: Well, technically, California is still under an emergency declaration. So the governor could institute another stay-at-home order. But there isn't a specific threshold that health officials have made public. Now the focus is really on vaccine equity, reducing the gaps between racial groups, especially that I just talked about. Rates are about 20% higher in wealthy neighborhoods than in poor areas. The state has been doing cash giveaways to get people interested in the shots. Today, 10 vaccinated Californians will be awarded $1.5 million each.

MCCAMMON: That's Jackie Fortier of member station KPCC in Los Angeles. Thanks.

FORTIER: Thanks.

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MCCAMMON: During the Trump administration, some 5,500 migrant families were separated along the U.S. southern border.

INSKEEP: Once it became clear how unpopular that policy was, some officials denied it was a policy at all. But when it began, administration officials said on the record, including here on NPR, that they were separating families in order to deter more people from coming. A new administration has been undoing that policy.

MCCAMMON: Our co-host, Rachel Martin, was part of a team at NPR who worked to tell the story of one family who experienced being torn apart. And she joins us now. Morning, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So tell us about this family.

MARTIN: Yeah. Their names are Melvin (ph) and Nestor (ph). They're father and son from El Salvador. We're not using their last names for their own safety. In 2018, they left home because their family was being threatened by gangs, by organized criminal networks. They felt they had no other choice except to try to make it to the U.S. When they got to the border, though, in June 2018, they were separated under the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy.

MCCAMMON: So they were separated. What happened next? Were they detained?

MARTIN: Yeah, Melvin was held in a detention facility in Texas. Nestor, who was just 11 years old at the time, was eventually sent to New York, where he was cared for by kind of a foster parent. Melvin says he asked immigration officials over and over about his son. He was just desperate for any information. I should say, this story only happened because of the work of MORNING EDITION producer Lily Quiroz. She's the one who spoke with Melvin and Nestor. And I want to play a little bit of their conversation with English interpretation.

MELVIN: (Through interpreter) And I began to ask about the kids, and they said, no, you guys are going to return and they will stay here. You guys are going to criminal court, having entered the country illegally. But after the court case, they didn't return us to the same place. They took us to a different place. This is when the despair began. Everyone was asking, and the children and the children, what about the children? And they stopped telling us anything.

MARTIN: Melvin was eventually released from detention. He made his way to Southern California, where his brother lives. And then on August 26, Sarah, 2 1/2 months after being separated from his son, Nestor was flown to Los Angeles, and they were reunited.

MCCAMMON: How is the family doing now?

MARTIN: It's been a lot, but they're stable. Melvin has a job driving a delivery truck. Nestor is starting high school in the fall, and they're waiting for their asylum case to work its way through the courts. But they each, as you can imagine, have suffered a lot of trauma, especially Nestor because he was so young. Once a week for about an hour, he sees a therapist, a trained therapist through a nonprofit called Seneca Family of Agencies. We talked with Melissa Tith. She's a program supervisor with Seneca. She's not working directly with Nestor, but this is what she's seen with other families.

MELISSA TITH: We saw some pretty traditional post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, a lot of nightmares, flashbacks, fear of it happening again, not being able to be without their child because of the very, very valid fear of thinking that they're going to be ripped apart once again.

MARTIN: And when our producer, Lily Quiroz, spoke with Nestor, he said he definitely struggled with some of those things. But the nightmares are getting better. The fear is subsiding. The Biden administration has started some reunifications, and they said they'll be able to reunite another 29 families in coming weeks. But there are still as many as 2,000 migrant children who remain separated from their families.

MCCAMMON: Rachel, thanks to you and to Lily for your reporting.

MARTIN: Thanks.

MCCAMMON: That's MORNING EDITION's own Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.