LA Times: California’s Sen. Padilla personally warned Biden not to fold to GOP on immigration to aid Ukraine

By Erin B. Logan, Courtney Subramanian, and Andrea Castillo

Sen. Alex Padilla approached President Biden at a campaign fundraiser at a sprawling, multilevel mansion in the Pacific Palisades last weekend to offer a warning.
Biden was at the home of investors José E. Feliciano and Kwanza Jones to court donors and talk about his administration’s record, but Padilla pulled the president aside to discuss behind-the-scenes talks in the Senate.

Padilla was worried. The White House, he knew, was considering agreeing to permanent immigration policy changes to win Senate Republicans’ support for about $110 billion in one-time aid to Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies.

“The primary message I was seeking to convey is warning [Biden] that Republican senators were dragging him into territory that was harmful policy,” Padilla told The Times in an interview Thursday. He said Biden “was listening intently” and asked when Padilla was last in contact with staffers in the West Wing.

Padilla would not comment further on Biden’s response, but said that since Thanksgiving, he has on “at least a daily basis” been in contact with the aides in the West Wing, including White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients and Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president.

“I wish we were having a conversation and making sure we get [the change] right,” Padilla said. “I think right now we’re in the conversation of making sure we don’t get it wrong.”

Padilla’s concerns and lobbying of the White House signal that the Ukraine, Israel and border policy deal Biden and Senate leaders are hoping to strike may have trouble winning widespread Democratic support.

Congress must pass a supplemental funding bill soon in order to get Ukraine the help it seeks to fend off Russia’s invasion, according to Biden, Senate leaders and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who visited Washington this week.

White House officials and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas intervened this week after it became clear that a bipartisan group of senators had failed to reach a deal. Zients met with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and dropped by negotiations on Capitol Hill on Thursday to emphasize that Biden supports more funding for border security and is open to immigration policy changes, according to a White House official.

“The president actually does really think we need to do something on the border,” said the official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.

Republicans have been pushing to allow border officials to expel migrants without screening them for asylum; to expand the detention of immigrants, including families, and the use of fast-tracked relocations from the border to the interior of the U.S.; and to limit who can seek asylum.

Republicans also sought to end the president’s authority to fast-track humanitarian entry to the U.S., which Biden has used repeatedly to welcome tens of thousands of migrants from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela and Cuba.

The White House is considering two of the GOP’s proposals: Allowing border officials to swiftly expel migrants if the number of arrivals at the border exceeds a certain level, and raising the standard for initially determining whether migrants may qualify for asylum.

“There is not yet an agreement on principles,” a congressional staffer familiar with negotiations told The Times. “Legislative text is a long way off. Negotiators are continuing to make progress towards a deal.”

Though Republicans say a deal is out of reach, Democratic negotiators and White House officials have signaled they are open to moving closer to GOP demands on border policy in order to reach a deal this year.

“We’re not there yet,” a White House aide said on Thursday. “But the conversation is going in the right direction.”

Late Thursday, Schumer cut senators’ holiday short, requiring them to stay in Washington next week for votes. It is unclear when or whether legislative text might emerge or a floor vote be scheduled. And even if the White House and Senate come through with a Christmas miracle, they would still need support from those Democrats who, like Padilla, have expressed deep concern, and from the GOP-controlled House, which is in recess until January.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) signaled Thursday that he would not call his chamber back to Washington. “For some reason, the Biden Administration waited until this week to even begin negotiations with Congress on the border issue,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “While that work should continue, the House will not wait around to receive and debate a rushed product.”

House Republicans earlier this month approved a $14-billion package to bolster Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip. But the bill slashed funding approved by Biden’s signature Inflation Reduction Act, making it dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Under Johnson, the House has not approved additional funding for Ukraine or U.S. allies in the Pacific. But House Republicans are pushing Senate negotiators to include their May immigration bill in any deal with the White House.

That legislation, which amounts to a wish list of GOP immigration priorities, would crack down on immigration by limiting asylum, codifying former President Trump-championed border policies, extending the border wall, criminalizing visa overstays and mandating that companies verify employees’ eligibility to work.

Much of what is being considered in negotiations would hamstring U.S. Customs and Border Protection while failing to deal with the root cause of migration, said Jason Houser, who was chief of staff at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement until March.

Houser also worried that negotiations could revive a version of the pandemic-era Title 42 policy, which allowed border officials to quickly expel migrants without considering their asylum requests. Under the Trump-era policy, migrant arrivals at the border actually increased, in part because many re-crossed the border immediately after being expelled. Expulsion is not the same as formal deportation, which can come with consequences such as criminal prosecution and a five-year ban from the U.S.

Making it easier for border officials to expel migrants won’t lower the number of people trying to cross the border because some countries will not readmit citizens whom the U.S. turns away, Houser said. Expelled migrants — and the human traffickers who move them across borders — would simply try again.

Kerri Talbot, executive director of the advocacy group Immigration Hub, hopes the negotiations will ultimately fail. Resurrecting an expulsion authority not linked to national public health would be a “blunt tool” that would fail to consider the circumstances of each case, she said.

Talbot also worries that the White House is weighing raising the legal bar migrants have to clear in their first interview with a border agent to avoid being fast-tracked for deportation.

“Almost no one has an attorney at that stage,” said Talbot, who helped write the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. “So some people with valid cases will get blocked.”

The White House would be making a political mistake by conceding to GOP demands, Talbot and Beatriz Lopez, also of Immigration Hub, wrote in a letter to White House staff Tuesday.

“The majority of voters in America are pro-immigrant and pro-orderliness — not for separating families, deporting long-settled immigrants or ending our asylum system,” they wrote. “Accepting GOP demands is accepting a deficit in support for President Biden in 2024.”

Other experts, though, say that come next November, a border policy deal might not harm Biden’s reelection chances.

Much of the reported White House concessions “is a signal that the Biden administration is trying to court the middle if not the right wing on immigration,” said Tom Wong, a political science professor and founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego. Although the move could alienate people on the left, voters in the middle “are most consequential” in presidential elections, Wong said.

“The Biden administration is taking a political risk by moving to the right on immigration,” he said. But for people on the left, a second Trump term “would be far more dangerous to our immigration system than a second Biden administration giving in on some Republican policy proposals,” he added.

Padilla wouldn’t say how he’d vote on any bill as he waits to see what talks produce. But he said he would be hard-pressed “to concede bad policy to Republicans and have nothing to show for helping Dreamers, agriculture workers, essential workers and other long-term residents of the United States working, paying taxes, contributing to the strength of our economy.”

“That would be a horrible place to be in going into [the election],” he said. “When [Biden] ran for president, he talked about restoring the soul of the nation, staying true to our democratic values and speaking on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees.”

“When you hear of a lot of ideas that are being entertained, it is absolutely concerning,” Padilla said.

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