Boston Globe: ‘This is a hostage-taking — this is not a negotiation’: Senate immigration talks leave many on the left unsatisfied

By Tal Kopan

A bipartisan group of senators is on the verge of striking an agreement to overhaul policies for migrants at the border, one so conservative that many on the left are wondering: “What gives?”

The emerging deal marks a dramatic political shift on immigration, with many of the traditional voices for Democrats on the issue feeling shut out and angry, especially given their party’s control of the White House and Senate.

“It’s beyond frustrating,” said Senator Alex Padilla, a Democrat from California, adding that he has tried to stay in contact with negotiators. “My fear, based on what we’re hearing, is that there’s some harmful policies — policies that have been proven to fail.”

Details are still being worked out and any compromise faces a long road to passage. But Senate negotiators, in consultation with the White House, say they are broadly discussing new asylum and admission restrictions at the southern border in exchange for tens of billions of dollars of aid to war-torn US allies Ukraine and Israel. The package would likely also include more money for Massachusetts and other states that are struggling to shelter high numbers of migrants being bused north.

If the deal were to become law, it would be one of the most significant changes to US immigration policy in decades and would defy long-held conceptions about the necessary ingredients for any bipartisan deal on the issue, including the goal of many on the left of pairing border security changes with a pathway to citizenship for migrants already in the United States. Progressives are threatening to vote against the deal, warning that resentment over approval could eat into President Biden’s already-tenuous Latino support in November.

“Our focus has been to stop it,” said Representative Nanette Diaz Barragán of California, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who accused Republicans of withholding aid to Ukraine and Israel to force stricter immigration restrictions. “This is a hostage-taking — this is not a negotiation.”

But the talks have evolved in a unique political environment: Biden has displayed a more conservative tilt on immigration, less-established lawmakers are leading on pro-immigration policies, historic numbers are arriving at the border, and there is desperation to pass the international aid.

Some on the left fear that regardless of how the talks shake out, the choice by Democrats and the White House to engage in them and offer so many concessions could have lasting effects on the scope of the possible immigration reform.

One pro-immigration source close to the talks, who asked for anonymity to speak freely about the dynamics, feared that Democrats have already “normalized” the immigration-restricting policies under consideration and will accept them in return for unrelated items such as the foreign aid. “The Biden administration and Democrats called this play. It was their idea to yoke Ukraine aid and this together,” the source said. “They thought that there were some things Congress would go along with that they wanted and didn’t want to say they were for.”

One major distinction from years of unsuccessful attempts at immigration deals has been who is negotiating this time. Democrats have been represented by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who chairs the homeland security appropriations subcommittee but has little background in immigration policy. He’s working with Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a moderate Democrat-turned-independent, and Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford. The group has been involved in other successful bipartisan deals and took a trip to the border together in 2023.

That has left out longtime Democratic immigration negotiator Dick Durbin of Illinois, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as Padilla, who heads the panel’s immigration subcommittee. No Hispanic or Latino senators are involved in the talks, a point of frustration for those who represent large immigration communities.

Multiple sources, though, questioned whether Congressional Hispanic Caucus members could feasibly negotiate, given the likelihood their constituencies will oppose any deal that could pass bipartisan muster.

Padilla said the administration and Democrats should be doing more to pull the talks back to the center and left, and many immigration advocates point to Biden as the primary reason Republicans have been able to shift the debate so far to the right.

“You have a tone-deaf president of the United States,” said former representative Luis Gutierrez, a longtime Democratic voice for immigrants and regular participant in immigration negotiations.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, though Biden told a group of mayors at the White House last week: “I believe we need significant policy changes at the border, including changes in our asylum system to ensure that we have authorities we need to control the border.”

But Gutierrez also laid some of the blame on the movement and congressional leaders.

“The left has never made immigration a priority,” Gutierrez said. “[Former speaker] Nancy Pelosi respected me not because she agreed with me, but because she knew I had a base across the United States. . . . I don’t know if I could name the one leader now of the cause for immigrants’ rights in the Congress.”

Another longtime Congressional Hispanic Caucus member said that in some ways, the group has become a victim of its growing importance. Representative Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat who represents a district that includes Arizona’s border with Mexico, noted that the diversity of viewpoints among caucus members and having some in congressional leadership have made it difficult for the group to influence the conversation.

“There has to be a unity around that issue, and I don’t see it,” Grijalva said. “Everybody’s doing their own thing, whether it is some of the Democrats in South Texas that want to see something done . . . whether it’s leadership that wants to deal so they can move on to another issue and placate the immigration border issue. Everything that’s been done around this issue has political consequences in 2024. And I think that’s the guiding light.”

The negotiations have also opened a rift between the House and Senate. Hispanic caucus members are warning that a large number of House Democrats might vote against the deal while hard-line conservatives are trashing it as unlikely to go far enough on border security. On the Senate side, pro-deal Republicans are telling their colleagues it’s an opportunity to put in place conservative policies they’d never get without this moment of leverage, policies a future Republican president could use to full effect.

“To get this kind of border security without granting a pathway to citizenship is really unheard of,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican veteran of many immigration negotiations, said at a news conference. “This is a historic moment to reform the border.”

While some Democrats remain skeptical, others acknowledge that the political realities have changed, including the need to provide more aid to Ukraine and a migrant crisis at the border.

“The left has a different view about how to address the crisis, but I don’t think anybody can be serious and say that there’s nothing to worry about on the southern border,” said progressive Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii. “What has changed is that the facts on the ground make it impossible to avoid.”

And it’s unclear if Democrats will truly punish Biden for striking a deal, or even balk at it. Gutierrez noted that even as he criticizes the president for what he’s considering on immigration, he’s also spending the next year working with the pro-immigration political group CASA to mobilize Latino voters in November.

“Who am I going to be working for? Mr. Biden, Mr. Tone Deaf Doesn’t Have a Plan for the Immigrant Community,” Gutierrez said. “I’m going to be working to get people to vote for him. All I’m saying is, can you make it a little easier for me? Can you give me something to work with?”

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