NYT: Democrats Clash Over Move to Add Asylum Changes to War Funding Bill

By Karoun Demirjian

A bipartisan group of senators has agreed that a spending package for Israel and Ukraine should include a measure making it more difficult to be granted asylum in the United States, according to senators involved in the talks, but is deadlocked on more sweeping immigration changes that Republicans have demanded.

Progressive and Hispanic Democrats are enraged about the emerging agreement to try to reduce migrant flows by imposing a stricter definition for migrants to meet when they claim they need refuge because they fear persecution in their home countries. It is not clear whether the idea will survive an intensive round of negotiations to finalize the national security spending measure, which could reach the Senate floor as soon as next week.

But the fact that senators in both parties are coalescing around the move — and that the Biden administration has signaled openness to it — highlights the political potency of concerns about the southern border. Republicans have sought to weaponize the issue against President Biden and his party, and with polls showing voters deeply critical of the president’s border policies, he and many other Democrats are eager to insulate themselves.

The emerging consensus to change asylum policy has alarmed liberals on Capitol Hill, particularly Latino lawmakers, who have privately expressed their grave concerns to both administration officials and Senate leaders.

A group of senators led by Senator Alex Padilla, Democrat of California, called the proposals under discussion “harmful” and said they would “potentially deny lifesaving humanitarian protection for vulnerable people, including children, and fail to deliver any meaningful improvement to the situation at the border.

“Using a one-time spending package to enact these unrelated permanent policy changes sets a dangerous precedent and risks assistance to our international partners,” Mr. Padilla said in a statement co-signed by ten other Senate Democrats.

Top Republicans have been adamant that stringent measures to crack down on border crossings between Mexico and the United States must accompany any assistance for Ukraine’s war against Russia. The Biden administration wants to include funding for Ukraine as part of a $106 billion measure that would also supply Israel with weapons to fight Hamas.

Over the past several weeks, a small group of Senate Democrats has been trying to accommodate the G.O.P.’s ultimatum, engaging in thorny talks about stiffening laws that govern when migrants are able to claim asylum and where they must wait for their day in immigration court.

“We’re being asked to solve a really complicated, politically difficult domestic issue in order to save Ukraine and stop Vladimir Putin’s march into Europe,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, a leading Democratic negotiator. “I don’t know whether we can get there — Republican demands are pretty, pretty high — but we’re trying.”

According to participants, the two sides have agreed in principle that migrants claiming a credible fear of persecution in their home countries must meet a higher bar to prove their concerns are well founded. They remain at an impasse, however, over whether to change policies governing when and where people entering the United States without permission should be detained or paroled into the country until their cases can be heard by a judge.

Yet even limited signs of headway have sparked an outcry from progressive and Latino Democrats. They insist that unless Republicans are willing to strike a more comprehensive bargain that includes legalizing some undocumented immigrants, Democrats should abandon the talks — a move that could doom Mr. Biden’s national security bill.

“Asylum is hard enough to get as it is, and changing the standard is opposite to what our values are,” said Representative Nanette Barragán, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who pledged to vote against a bill that included changes to border laws.

She said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, should “put a package on the floor without those terrible extra things, and let Republicans decide that they’re not willing to fund Israel and Ukraine.”

On Thursday, Mr. Schumer said that while Democrats were willing to accept some border policy changes in the measure, there was a limit to what they would swallow.

“We all know the border is a problem that we should deal with, but it’s not related to Ukraine or to Israel or to the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “It’s been put in there by Republicans, and that means there’s an onus on them to make sure it’s bipartisan.”

The talks are only the latest in a long line of efforts over the past two decades — all unsuccessful — to hash out a bipartisan immigration deal. But the current group is operating under both a tighter deadline and stiffer conditions than their predecessors.

In a break with the past, there are no Latino participants in the group of Senate negotiators, which has been meeting on a near-daily basis for the past few weeks. Their work has been heavily influenced by what Speaker Mike Johnson is willing to put to a vote on the House floor — and how much of that the White House is willing to accept.

Mr. Biden’s advisers have been keeping tabs on the group’s progress via updates from the Democratic negotiators, while Mr. Johnson is being kept in the loop by the Republicans. Mr. Johnson said this week that he was buoyed by the direction of the talks, and “confident and optimistic” that a bill including funds for Ukraine, Israel and the border could pass the House in December.

But in a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans on Wednesday, he said that getting such a bill through the House, where the G.O.P. has already pushed through more draconian border legislation, would be difficult without serious policy changes.

The Biden administration has signaled that it is willing to accept the G.O.P.’s demand for a more restrictive credible-fear standard, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations. But that would affect only migrants who are put through expedited removal proceedings — a small percentage of the overall number of people crossing the border.

It is not clear how many more migrants would be put through such proceedings if Congress approves funds for additional Border Patrol agents, asylum officers and detention facilities — sums that the White House is seeking as part of the national security package.

Democrats and Republicans are also discussing whether to expand requirements that asylum seekers apply for protections in “safe third countries” they pass through on the way to the United States, or risk expulsion to those countries.

But Republicans are also seeking far more aggressive steps, including changes to parole, the practice of allowing migrants who may not be eligible for U.S. residency to be released from detention into the country for a temporary period. They want to reinstitute an array of Trump-era policies, including family detention and protocols that forced individuals who could not be held in detention facilities to wait in Mexico until it is their turn to appear in immigration court.

“We need to have language on parole — so much so that I’m willing to deny moving on to any supplemental, probably all of which I would support that has Israel and Ukraine in it, absent this,” said Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, and one of the chief G.O.P. negotiators. “We have to have something that we think, taken together, is going to substantially reduce future flows.”

Democrats, including the White House, have given no indication that they would be open to changing parole policy, at least not without concessions from Republicans on some of their priorities to soften the blow.

Mr. Murphy, who has been at the center of the parole negotiations along with Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, suggested adding a measure to put certain immigrants brought to the country unlawfully as children on a pathway to citizenship. But the proposal to help that group, which has legal status under a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, was summarily shot down by the Republicans in the room.

“You come to me and tell me we have to have DACA and a path to citizenship in this bill, it will be the last discussion you have with me on border security,” Mr. Tillis said. “This is not about immigration. This is about fixing a disaster that even Biden knows, if he doesn’t make progress, there’s going to be electoral consequences next year.”

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