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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Senators release border deal to unlock Ukraine aid, but fate remains uncertain

Members of the Texas Army National Guard near the border fence in El Paso, on May 9, 2023. A compromise bill released by the Senate to crack down on illegal immigration includes a provision making it more difficult to claim asylum and an expansion of detention capacity. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

By Karoun Demirjian

Senate Republicans and Democrats on Sunday unveiled a $118.3 billion compromise bill to crack down on unlawful migration across the U.S. border with Mexico and speed critical security aid to Ukraine, but the deal faces long odds in a Congress deeply divided over both issues.

The release of the agreement, struck after more than three months of near-daily talks among senators and Biden administration officials, counted as an improbable breakthrough on a policy matter that has bedeviled presidents of both parties and defied decades of efforts at compromise on Capitol Hill. President Joe Biden, who last month promised he would shut down the border immediately if the measure became law, implored Congress on Sunday to pass the bill and send it to his desk as soon as possible.

“If you believe, as I do, that we must secure the border now, doing nothing is not an option,” he said in a statement, adding that Republicans “have to decide. Do they want to solve the problem? Or do they want to keep playing politics with the border?”

The bill features some of the most significant border security restrictions Congress has contemplated in years. They include making it more difficult to claim asylum, vastly expanding detention capacity and effectively shutting down the border to new entrants if more than an average of 5,000 migrants per day try to cross over unlawfully in the course of a week, or more than 8,500 attempt to cross on any given day.

But Speaker Mike Johnson has already pronounced the bill “dead on arrival” in the Republican-controlled House. And with former President Donald Trump actively campaigning against the deal, it was not clear whether the measure could even make it out of the Democratic-led Senate, where it needs bipartisan backing to move forward.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., majority leader, said he planned to put the package to an initial vote Wednesday, in a critical test of its ability to survive.

“I know the overwhelming majority of senators want to get this done, and it will take bipartisan cooperation to move quickly,” Schumer said in a statement Sunday.

Yet, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., minority leader, stopped short of ordering GOP colleagues to back the bill Sunday, even as he hailed the measure for including “direct and immediate solutions to the crisis at our southern border.”

The measure includes $20.2 billion to pay for improvements to border security, including hiring new asylum officers and border security agents, expanding the number of available detention beds and increasing screenings for fentanyl and other illicit drugs. It also includes $60.1 billion for Ukraine, $14.1 billion in security assistance for Israel, and $10 billion in humanitarian aid for civilians in conflict zones including the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Ukraine.

But the bill falls short of several Republican demands, including ramping up border wall construction and limiting parole and related programs that allow migrants to live and work legally in the United States without visas while they await hearings on their immigration claims — sometimes for years.

Those omissions have alienated right-wing Republicans who insisted on far more severe measures, while the restrictions have enraged progressive Democrats.

“Hard no,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said on social media Sunday, adding in a second post, “This is an open-borders bill if I’ve ever seen one.”

Some immigration proponents also blasted the bill as too restrictive.

“This border deal misses the mark,” Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said in a statement. “The deal includes a new version of a failed Trump-era immigration policy that will cause more chaos at the border, not less.”

That opposition could complicate the plan’s path through the closely divided Senate, where it needs bipartisan support — at least 60 votes — to move forward. And the compromises threaten to kill the agreement altogether in the GOP-led House, where there is deep opposition to providing additional aid to Ukraine and many right-wing Republicans regard the immigration restrictions as insufficiently tough.

Johnson and other House Republicans have said repeatedly that they will accept a border deal only if it includes, or at least substantially mirrors, a severely restrictive bill they passed last spring. That legislation would revive a series of Trump-era policies, including a requirement that migrants who cannot fit in detention centers in the United States await their immigration court dates in Mexico.

Johnson, who has openly resisted putting the Senate deal to a vote, plans to have the House vote instead this week on a measure to send $17.6 billion in security aid to Israel alone and impeach Alejandro Mayorkas, homeland security secretary, on charges that he willfully failed to secure the border.

The bipartisan Senate negotiations were spurred by an ultimatum in the fall by Republicans, who threatened to withhold their support for any bill to send Ukraine a fresh infusion of U.S. assistance unless the money was paired with severe border enforcement measures.

The Senate GOP followed through on the threat in December, blocking an emergency national security spending package requested by Biden that contained tens of billions in aid to Ukraine, funding for Israel’s war effort in Gaza, humanitarian assistance for Palestinians and security measures to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Biden had included $13.6 billion for border security in his request, an early indication that he and Democrats in Congress saw the situation at the border as a potential political liability in an election year. In the weeks that followed, their willingness to negotiate with Republicans about major policy changes to clamp down on unauthorized border crossings reflected a growing sense in the party of an untenable status quo, with a record-setting influx of migrants arriving in the United States without visas.

Right-wing Republicans have rushed to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with Biden’s handling of the border, and many have argued that they should not support any immigration legislation that could allow Biden or Democrats to claim credit for addressing the issue.

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