Congressional split on immigration hangs over year-end spending fights
By Karoun Demirjian
There is growing consensus on Capitol Hill and at the White House that any deal to fund foreign wars, and possibly the entire government, must include significant new measures to address the U.S.-Mexico border, but Republicans and Democrats are deeply split over what changes to make.
President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress — who had previously resisted the idea of tougher immigration policies as a price for a spending deal — have pivoted in recent weeks and are now considering concessions as part of an emergency bill to provide aid to Israel and Ukraine. And Republicans, who have been agitating for months for strict new border measures, are demanding a host of policy changes, including an overhaul of asylum laws.
The discussion, taking place before a government funding deadline in just over a week, reflects how fraught the politics of immigration have become for Biden and Democrats.
The party’s liberal base, which opposes most of the stricter GOP-backed initiatives, was already angry at the president for embracing some of the Donald Trump-era measures he campaigned against, such as border wall construction. But polls have also shown deep dissatisfaction with how the Biden administration has handled a recent surge in migrants, and many Democrats fear a voter backlash if they do not accept at least modest changes.
“I’d like to bridge the divide,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “Our caucus would like to see some kind of common-sense border policies done, and the president would like to get something done.
“But,” he added later, “Republicans need to actually work with us on realistic border policies.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said he told Biden and Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary, on Monday that “it would be difficult to get the package across the floor of the Senate without a credible border solution.”
Senate Republicans have proposed a border plan that largely mirrors a severely restrictive bill that Republicans pushed through the House in the spring over unanimous Democratic opposition. It would reinstitute Trump-era policies requiring migrant families to be detained at the border and forcing people who cannot be housed in detention facilities to wait outside the country until their cases are processed.
It would also dismantle a number of the Department of Homeland Security programs designed to streamline entry procedures for migrants fleeing in large numbers from unstable countries, such as Venezuela, Haiti and Ukraine. Administration officials argue that the removal of those legal pathways to immigration would increase the number of attempted illegal border crossings.
The proposal would also make it more difficult for migrants to apply for asylum, which is designed to allow people fleeing persecution or violence in their home countries to seek refuge in the United States. Republicans are pressing to raise the bar for migrants to claim a “credible fear of persecution” — the legal standard for an asylum application — so that they would have to show that their persecution was “more likely than not” if they returned home, instead of the current requirement that they believe persecution is a “significant possibility” if they were to be sent back.
Democrats have been reluctant to consider changing asylum rules, which many immigration advocates regard as unacceptable. But in recent days, some Democrats have indicated they might be open to modifications.
While the changes Republicans are proposing would be significant, they would likely affect only a small percentage of the more than 2 million migrants arrested yearly by Border Patrol officers. Over the past year, about 178,000 migrants were put through expedited removal proceedings that involve credible fear interviews, and only about two-thirds of those claimed to be concerned about persecution if they were returned.
“It is worth discussing,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who has spent the past year debating various immigration proposals with Republicans. But he added that it would be hard for many Democrats to swallow. “We may well be at the very beginning of an exceptionally difficult series of negotiations by leaders of both parties,” he said.
Coons and other Democrats have argued that the border security spending Biden has proposed is a more reasonable starting point for negotiations. The president requested $13.6 billion for building new detention facilities, hiring more Border Patrol officials, filling vacancies in the immigration courts and combating fentanyl trafficking.
Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, promoted those changes Wednesday in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“We need the funding that we are requesting immediately,” Mayorkas told senators, arguing that the department was in need of resources, not policy proposals that might hamper passage of a spending bill. He added that the administration would otherwise “fully endorse the need for policy changes, not in piecemeal form but in a comprehensive form.”
Republicans have rejected the administration’s framework as wasteful and insufficient to stanch the flow of migrants into the United States.
“It’s abundantly clear that the solution to the administration’s border crisis is by replacing bad policies with sensible ones,” McConnell said Tuesday. “Even Secretary Mayorkas admitted last week that ‘policy changes are needed.’” He added that Biden’s request was “much less focused on fixing policy than on throwing money at the problem.”
McConnell’s insistence on sweeping border security measures reflects a shift in position among Senate Republicans who are strong proponents of continuing to fund Ukraine’s war against Russia. They previously pushed back on the demands of their counterparts in the House, who are much more hostile to aid to Ukraine, that border security and asylum measures be included as the price for continuing to supply military assistance to Ukraine.
They are also rejecting calls from Democrats to make a deal by incorporating policy changes more palatable to the left, such as reprieves from deportation for immigrants brought to the United States as children.
“There are pieces of what they put on the table that we could have a conversation about, but there would also have to be some Democratic priorities as well on the table,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn. Murphy suggested that making that policy, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, permanent could be part of a potential bipartisan deal if Republicans insist on stricter immigration policies.
“DACA’s not border security; this is a national security package,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said in response. “When you start dealing with some of those other areas, you start getting into comprehensive immigration reform.”
Because of the government funding deadline Nov. 17, it will likely be left to congressional leaders to determine if there is a way out of the impasse. But many rank-and-file members of both parties are skeptical that there is time to resolve immigration differences that have confounded Congress for decades.
“It’s a triple bank shot,” Murphy said.