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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Johnson visits border, turning up heat on Biden for an immigration deal



House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) delivers remarks during a press briefing at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington on Nov. 29, 2023. During a visit to Eagle Pass, Texas, Johnson demanded that President Joe Biden crack down on illegal immigration. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Karoun Demirjian


House Republicans threatened earlier this week to starve the entire federal government of funding if President Joe Biden and Democrats fail to institute a crackdown at the U.S.-Mexico border to choke off the flow of migrants streaming into the country.


The warning came as Speaker Mike Johnson led a visit by more than 60 House Republicans to Eagle Pass, Texas, to raise pressure on Biden and Democrats to agree to strict new immigration policies.


“No more money for this bureaucracy of his government until you’ve brought this border under control,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. “Shut the border down or shut the government down.”


In a news conference Wednesday, Johnson attacked Biden for a surge in migrant crossings, demanding that he clamp down by deporting people who try to enter the country illegally and reinstitute a Trump-era policy of keeping migrants in Mexico until their day in immigration court.


He said Republicans would not support the administration’s efforts to secure more than $50 billion in security assistance for Ukraine unless Biden embraced the restrictions in a stringent border security bill the House passed last spring, calling it “what’s necessary to fix the problem.”


“If President Biden wants a supplemental spending bill focused on national security, it better begin by defending America’s national security — it begins right here on our southern border,” Johnson said.


Senate Republicans and Democrats are struggling to reach an agreement on border policy to speed those funds to Ukraine as part of a broader emergency spending bill.


The visit comes two weeks before the first of two deadlines to fund the government, which Senate negotiators hoped would help build momentum toward a border deal. The talks have centered around making it more difficult for migrants to claim asylum in the United States, by deporting or detaining more of those who cross the border, and keeping more of them out of the country while they await a decision on whether they will be allowed to enter.


Republicans in both the House and Senate have said that such changes are necessary to stem what they argue is a threat to the country’s national security.


“These are not people who are fleeing and are looking for asylum that are in fear for their lives,” Johnson told reporters Wednesday, claiming that “hardened criminals” were taking advantage of lax border enforcement policies to wreak havoc in the United States.


But as GOP lawmakers flocked to Eagle Pass hoping to embarrass Biden with a scene of chaos and danger, the backdrop was mostly empty and serene. Only a handful of migrants could be seen crossing the narrow stretch of the Rio Grande as Johnson spoke to the news media — a trickle compared to the rush that unfolds there on a typical day.


“It may have to do with the fact that the speaker and 60-plus members showed up,” Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, a host of the event, told reporters. He suggested that cartels that smuggle migrants to the border had intentionally slowed down their work to undercut the GOP’s dire message.


Still, Democrats are not discounting the warnings. Biden and Democrats in Congress, recognizing the political liability they face if they fail to address the border, have signaled openness to making significant changes to existing border security policies, but not enough to satisfy Republicans. And in the House, Republicans are pressing for even more severe measures that Democrats are unlikely to embrace.


“This situation requires significant policy changes and House Republicans will continue advocating for real solutions that actually secure our border,” Johnson said Tuesday in a post on social media.


Republicans in both the House and Senate have insisted that sweeping immigration changes must be part of any bill to help Ukraine fight off a Russian invasion, and GOP senators last month blocked a $110.5 billion national security spending bill that would replenish Ukraine’s war chest. Their demands prompted Biden administration officials, including Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, to join near-daily bipartisan talks on Capitol Hill last month to find an elusive compromise on immigration policies — a reflection of the political pressure Democrats face to impose order on the border.


Senators resumed those negotiations in person Tuesday afternoon after holding them virtually over the last week with participants scattered around the country for the holidays.


Biden administration officials declined Tuesday to discuss the details of the talks but said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are private, that they were moving in the right direction.


Late last month, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., the GOP’s lead representative in the talks, said negotiators had made “significant progress.” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said in a joint statement with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, that they were equally “committed to addressing needs at the southern border and to helping allies and partners confront serious threats in Israel, Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific.”


On Wednesday, Schumer and the White House accused Johnson of complicating the negotiators’ task by looking to score political points rather than working to enact meaningful changes.


“It’s very nice that they have a trip to the border, but the only way to solve this is here, working in a bipartisan way with Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats and House Democrats to get it done, period,” Schumer told reporters. “I hope the speaker will realize that if he wants to solve the problem on the border.”


A White House spokesperson, Andrew Bates, noted that Johnson had spurned Biden’s request for more money to hire the Border Patrol agents and asylum officers who could help reduce the number of illegal crossings.


“Actions speak louder than words,” Bates said in a statement. “House Republicans’ anti-border security record is defined by attempting to cut Customs and Border Protection personnel, opposing President Biden’s record-breaking border security funding, and refusing to take up the president’s supplemental funding request.”


But as senators scramble to come up with a bipartisan compromise on immigration policy, House Republicans are focusing on more partisan border ventures. Next week, the chamber’s Homeland Security Committee is expected to hold the first in a series of hearings aimed at impeaching Mayorkas, whom Republicans accused of fomenting a migration crisis.


“The policies of Mayorkas are being used by the cartels to exploit the American people,” Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., the panel chair, told reporters in Eagle Pass. Mayorkas has denied similar charges in the past, and it is not clear that House Republicans have the votes to ultimately impeach him on the House floor.


Still, Johnson is under intense pressure himself from the right, which has led the charge against the Biden administration’s efforts to arm Ukraine. And Republicans have made a draconian approach to border security — including an overhaul of the nation’s asylum laws and a return to detention policies that forced migrants to wait in Mexico before making their case to a judge — a centerpiece of their 2024 campaign message.


The threat is a potentially potent one, coming as Congress faces back-to-back deadlines to fund the federal government Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. Senate leaders have been eyeing the two deadlines as possible opportunities to have lawmakers vote on a Ukraine-border deal, should negotiators succeed in producing one — despite the fact that Republicans and Democrats have yet to agree on the size of the next spending bill.


But significant gaps remain between the two parties that would make it difficult for negotiators to finalize an agreement before Congress returns to Washington next week. Though the two sides have agreed in principle to make it more difficult for migrants to apply for asylum, increase detentions and broaden the president’s ability to swiftly deport those who cross the border illegally, they remain at odds over how and when such powers should be used — and how to write those authorities into law.

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Oscar Melendez
Oscar Melendez
Jan 07

But he hasn’t released the Jan 6 videos

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