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News Brief: Economy Might See Improvement, U.S. Asylum Program, Hong Kong Elections


We've come a long way from the economic calamity of a year ago, far enough to make some investors worry.


Yeah, it's been a bizarre recovery. Millions of people are still out of work. Many businesses never recovered from pandemic lockdowns. A lot of people really need the stimulus checks from a COVID relief bill that's now moving through Congress. But some investors are afraid that infusion of cash could bring inflation.

INSKEEP: As they worry, we get the latest jobs report today, and NPR's Scott Horsley is watching. Scott, good morning.


INSKEEP: What's expected?

HORSLEY: Forecasters think we're going to see some improvement from January, when there were really anemic job gains. There have been mixed signals this week from the manufacturing sector, which is really revving up, and then the larger services side of the economy, which is not moving quite so fast. Sarah House, who's a senior economist at Wells Fargo, thinks we're going to see the early signs in this report of a job market that's coming out of what she calls its winter hibernation.

SARAH HOUSE: Right now, we're seeing - for every case of COVID, we're seeing 30 vaccinations. And when we look at the state of consumers, they have already quite a bit of money to spend. I think they're eager to get out there. And given that it looks like it's going to be a lot safer to do so, that - we should see the economy really kick into a higher gear over the next couple months.

HORSLEY: You know, many people who've been lucky enough to keep working are sitting on a lot of savings because they haven't been able to travel or go out to the movies as much as usual. And if you add another $1,400 payment for most Americans that Congress is considering with this relief package, you know, that could fuel a lot of spending in the months to come.

INSKEEP: OK. So what does that mean for the scale of the economic recovery?

HORSLEY: It's encouraging for the overall economy. When it comes to jobs, though, there is still a big hole to fill. We were almost 10 million jobs short of where we were before the pandemic in January. Economist Daniel Zhao, who's with the job search website Glassdoor, says that means we'd have to add about a million jobs a month to make up for that this year.

DANIEL ZHAO: We've got some green shoots of the recovery sticking up out of the snow, but there's still a long way to go before the forest grows back.

HORSLEY: Congressional forecasters have warned it could be 2024 before we recover all the jobs lost in the pandemic. But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is more optimistic. She says if Congress passes this $1.9 trillion rescue bill, it could really speed up the recovery, and we could be back to full employment as early as next year. Now, there are critics who say the rescue bill is too big. They say instead of revving up the economy, it's going to flood the engine and trigger something we haven't had to worry about for a long time, which is inflation.

INSKEEP: OK. So we've hit that note of investor anxiety. What is - what's making them worry?

HORSLEY: Well, it's always a little dangerous to try to suss out market psychology. But one thing investors are worried about is the notion that inflation could pick up and prices could spike. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell thinks those worries are overblown. Speaking at a Wall Street Journal conference yesterday, Powell said any runup in prices we see this year is likely to be temporary.


JEROME POWELL: I think it's a constructive thing for people to point out potential risks. But I do think it's more likely that what happens in the next year or so is going to amount to prices moving up, but not staying up.

HORSLEY: Now, Powell says if he's wrong and we do get a surprise jump in prices, the central bank can fix that. But that didn't really calm investor jitters, and the major stock market indexes ended in the red yesterday.

INSKEEP: It's interesting that he is acknowledging prices are heading up. He just doesn't think it'll last.

Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.


INSKEEP: President Biden's administration has begun letting some asylum-seekers cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

KING: These are the people President Trump told to "Remain in Mexico." That was the informal name of the policy. People at that time who hoped to get asylum in the U.S. were made to wait outside the country, sometimes even for years, for a court hearing. Even though that's now changing, it doesn't apply to every asylum-seeker, and new migrants are still arriving at the border.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett was at a camp in Matamoros, Mexico, that once held hundreds of asylum-seekers who were told to remain in Mexico. He's with us on Skype.

John, good morning.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did you see?

BURNETT: Well, Steve, the most infamous refugee camp on the U.S.-Mexico border is almost empty. A month ago, it was teeming with more than 600 migrants, and today there are only a few dozen people left. It looks like a deserted shantytown. As you said, President Biden ended Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy, which critics said was cruel. That means asylum-seekers who were turned away at the border under Trump are being allowed into the U.S. to wait for a court to consider their claim, but mainly only those who were part of the "Remain in Mexico" program. What that meant in Matamoros is that U.S. officials began processing folks from this camp first, in part because so much international attention was focused on this wretched encampment with its rats, snakes, mosquitoes and mud.

INSKEEP: OK. So they've gotten a lot of those people out of the camp and across the border. But who's left behind?

BURNETT: Well, they're mostly Central American migrants who've lost their asylum cases. One of them is Danilo Parasa (ph), a 28-year-old Honduran who I'd actually met on an earlier visit to the camp. And man, has he had a rough time. The first time I saw him, he was sprawling in his tent, recovering from a mugging by gangsters who extort migrants. His face was a swollen mass of bruises. But Parasa is still there because a U.S. immigration judge denied his asylum claim from Honduras, and then he lost his appeal. So he says the mood among the left-behinds is bittersweet.

DANILO PARASA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: He says there's sadness because he and others didn't get to cross. But there's happiness because so many have been able to leave the awful conditions there and finally get into the country.

INSKEEP: Now, John, we are talking here about people who've been waiting in that camp or elsewhere for months or even a couple of years for their asylum claims. But what about people who are newly arriving at the border?

BURNETT: So - Steve, everywhere I went, I met migrants from Central America who were showing up at the border since Biden took office, hoping beyond hope to get across. I found 150 mothers with children sleeping on a cold, hard plaza in Reynosa. They'd just been expelled from Texas by the Border Patrol. They said they thought they would be allowed in, but instead they were arrested, detained in austere holding cells and treated like animals. They'd misunderstood some media reports back home that Biden would let them in, and they were sadly mistaken. And so the administration is saying emphatically, don't come now because of the pandemic travel restrictions, and give us time to rebuild the asylum system.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about one bit of news as well. The administration announced a change last night to how it is processing people once they get into the United States. What's happening?

BURNETT: What we understand, Steve, is there are three detention centers formerly used to hold families. They're being converted into processing centers to more quickly release asylum-seekers with orders to appear in court. And that's so they won't be held for long in those spartan Border Patrol cells I mentioned earlier. We also know that government has recently been forced to open two facilities in Texas for mothers and children and re-open a controversial shelter for migrant teenagers. So you have a White House trying to quickly rebuild immigration policies in ways they say are more just and compassionate, but, at the same time, deal with this surge of people at the border.

INSKEEP: So much happening as the policy changes. John, thanks so much.

BURNETT: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett.


INSKEEP: An annual meeting for Chinese legislators opened this morning in Beijing to great fanfare.


KING: Fanfare for sure, but there will not be a lot of debate. The rubber stamp legislature will discuss the country's policy plans for the next five years. Part of their agenda is the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Over the next week, they'll discuss a proposal to give Beijing effective control over election results.

INSKEEP: NPR Beijing correspondent Emily Feng is covering the story. Hey there, Emily.


INSKEEP: What exactly would this proposal allow the central government to do?

FENG: They have not released details, but they have said it will center around the following two guidelines. One, they want to pack the election committee that chooses each Hong Kong chief executive with Beijing appointees. Beijing, already, that's much of the chief executive's election process, but now they're looking for total control. And second, they also want to pack Hong Kong's legislature with candidates Beijing vets or even directly appoints. Hong Kong's current chief executive, Carrie Lam, who is in Beijing today for the legislative meetings, defended these proposed changes this week.


CARRIE LAM: This need to change the electoral system and arrangements in Hong Kong - as for the one single purpose is to make sure that whoever is governing Hong Kong is patriotic.

FENG: And if you're like me, you're wondering, what does she mean by patriotic?


FENG: Shortly after, another senior Hong Kong official defined patriotic as meaning you love the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. And that will be the new criteria for vetting Hong Kong's next generation of officials.

INSKEEP: So - OK, so you have to be pro-communist to get into office in Hong Kong. That would be the change. Why make it now?

FENG: Well, Hong Kong's never been a true electoral democracy, but you could vote for certain officials, and that's what put it in a different league from mainland China. But now that wiggle room is too much for Beijing's comfort. Here's Alvin Cheung, a legal scholar now at New York University.

ALVIN CHEUNG: Beijing is no longer prepared to tolerate an election that it cannot rig.

INSKEEP: And that's what we're talking about here.

FENG: And what likely...

INSKEEP: That's what we're talking about here, right?

FENG: Go on.

INSKEEP: I mean, there's still a vote, but under such rules and with the candidates vetted in such a way that there's really only one choice. How are people in Hong Kong responding to all of this?

FENG: They're shocked, but this is also expected. Before these proposals were made, Hong Kong's political opposition had already gone into exile, were jailed or were forcibly disqualified from office. Only yesterday, there was a marathon four-day bail hearing that just ended where 47 local politicians were charged with subversion under Hong Kong's national security law. What did they do? They organized an election primary last July. And they go on trial in May.

What was likely the impetus for these proposals that we're seeing this week in Beijing was a landslide election in November 2019, where it seemed the pro-democratic camp could actually win some seats potentially later down the line in the legislative and maybe even pick the next chief executive. And that really spooked Beijing, and so now they're doing everything they can to close that possibility.

INSKEEP: Emily, thanks for the update.

FENG: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.