Senate border deal hits roadblocks
Lawmakers break for Christmas without agreeing on immigration changes
Last week, Juvenal González and his wife, María, hosted several Venezuelan families, including seven children, in their home in Tijuana, Mexico. Now, two families from Afghanistan are staying with the couple. The church that González pastors is struggling to serve a rising number of migrants hoping to cross the border into California.
That’s according to Stephen Reeves, executive director of Fellowship Southwest, an organization that supports shelters and pastors, including González’s. Reeves said the network’s partner shelter in Brownsville, Texas, is receiving more immigrants than the usual daily numbers of 100-200. “Lately it’s been more like 300-plus people a day,” he said.
As communities like González’s struggle to accommodate the influx, lawmakers in Washington are scrambling to strike a balance between domestic and foreign priorities. Congressional Republicans are demanding some sort of fix for the country’s southern border before sending yet another aid package to the frontlines of the war between Ukraine and Russia. While the White House has signaled openness to the talks, agreement on the details remain illusive after weeks of negotiations—even among Republicans. Senate leaders announced Tuesday that they would resume talks on the subject after the holiday break.
Though lawmakers haven’t set any policy proposals in stone, some immigration advocates are sounding the alarm about the possible restrictions. They point to a need for legal immigration reform that resolves backlogs and opens up more legal pathways. But proponents of stricter enforcement argue it’s pointless to overhaul the immigration system before getting the illegal influx at the U.S.-Mexico border under control.
Last week, the White House revitalized flagging negotiations when it proposed a policy to allow border officials to expel immigrants without granting them asylum hearings on days when illegal crossings are particularly high. The administration also signaled it may be open to raising the bar for claiming asylum and expanding detention for adult migrants. To conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives, that’s an opportunity to overcome the stiff resistance they’ve faced from the Democratically-controlled Senate. The House already passed in May a border security-oriented legislation that tightens restrictions on asylum and other methods of entry—a bill called H.R.2.
“I’ve told [House Speaker Mike] Johnson a million times. We need to have a negotiating team that works directly with the White House,” said Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican. “Senate Democrats have no incentive to make a deal. They will get reelected. [President Joe] Biden won’t get reelected if the border is still a mess, so he has an incentive to make a deal.”
Crenshaw and other House Republicans are keenly aware that recent polling shows a majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s performance on immigration, fueled by highly-visible examples of shortcomings.
Illegal entries hit another record high during fiscal year 2023 and aren’t slowing down. Migrant encounters exceeded 12,000 encounters in a single day earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Fox News. The agency shut down the bustling international bridge earlier this month between Sonoyta, Mexico, and Lukeville, Ariz., to focus resources on apprehending and processing a rush of migrants crossing into the remote desert area illegally. Officials temporarily closed railway crossings into Eagle Pass and El Paso, Texas.
At the heart of the impasse are Republican demands to raise the standard for claiming asylum, one of the key changes proposed by H.R.2. The United States grants asylum to immigrants who are unwilling or unable to return home due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Asylees can live in the United States permanently and apply to be citizens.
But many of the immigrants asking for asylum at the southern border fled rampant cartel violence or a faltering economy, not persecution specifically targeting them for their race or political opinions. Though 81 percent of immigrants pass the initial “credible fear” interview and are released into the country to pursue their case, the majority will not be granted asylum in court. There is currently a backlog of over 1 million asylum cases in immigration court.
Matt Eagan is the director of federal affairs at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. Eagan believes the bill passed in the House would close what he calls “loopholes” in the asylum process. He argued the final product of current Senate negotiations should incorporate at least some of H.R.2’s asylum measures.
Under the House bill, immigrants would have to prove they were denied asylum in a third country en route to the United States. The legislation raises the ‘credible fear’ standard for the initial asylum screening. Immigrants would have to prove they were “more likely than not” to qualify for asylum in order to continue their case in immigration court. It would also restrict asylum claims for immigrants who cross illegally between ports of entry and require the Department of Homeland Security to detain more immigrants while courts adjudicate their asylum claims, instead of releasing them into the country with an alternative to detention.
Immigration experts on both sides of the aisle agree the asylum system as it currently stands is overloaded and ineffective. But Scott Andrew Fulks, an immigration attorney with Deckert Law Firm, said asylum policy isn’t top of mind for most immigrants arriving at the southern border, and raising the bar won’t stop them from coming.
“They’re just thinking about their day-to-day [needs]: feeding their children, trying to make ends meet in a very cold climate here as we’re heading into winter. That’s where their minds are at,” said Fulks. “I think it’s a pipe dream to think that any of Congress’ conversations affects any person’s decision to leave everything back home. They make the decision based on safety, not Congress’ proposals.”
Republicans also want to restrict the president’s use of humanitarian parole, a temporary status granted for “urgent humanitarian or significant public benefit reasons.” They argue the president is overusing the status, which should be reserved for emergency situations on a case by case basis. The bill the House passed in May would define these categories more narrowly. In current negotiations, the White House indicated it will not budge on the policy, which the administration has used to welcome over 100,000 Ukrainians and about 77,000 Afghans.
In January, Biden announced a temporary parole program for up to 30,000 immigrants per month from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua in hopes of lowering illegal crossings. The administration also granted the status to the nearly 324,000 immigrants who booked appointments for asylum interviews at ports of entry on a government phone app.
Jennie Murray, the president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, argued Congress should focus on creating alternative legal pathways, not curtailing a power the president has been forced to turn to because of their own inaction. “If Congress were to solve the issues that they’ve been kicking the can down the road on for so long, the president wouldn’t have to use that in an expanded role,” she said.
Murray believes the majority of moderate voters want comprehensive reforms, not what she calls an “enforcement-only” approach. In a survey of 1,200 American adults, the National Immigration Forum and the Bullfinch Group found that over 80 percent of voters support a candidate who would establish order at the border and enact bipartisan reforms, including establishing more legal pathways for foreign born workers.
Reeves with Fellowship Southwest agrees that upping restrictions without simultaneously expanding legal pathways won’t stem the tide. “They’re going to get here however they can,” he said. “As long as the legal immigration system is broken, the border is going to be broken, too.”
Congress hasn’t significantly revised immigration law since 1986, and Reeves isn’t optimistic about the current round of negotiations. The Senate continued negotiations over the weekend, but it is unlikely lawmakers will forge a compromise before the end of the year. “These pastors and towns and migrants are caught in political fights,” said Reeves. “And that serves no one.”