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Inside the left’s border backlash

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For years, immigration activists have signaled they’re willing to accept a compromise to unlock action on Capitol Hill: Republicans get tougher border policies and Democrats get progressive immigration measures — a path to citizenship for Dreamers, at the very least.

That grand bargain is now in peril, thanks to a furious push to deliver tens of billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine, and advocates and lawmakers are sounding alarms.

In a statement Wednesday, a group of 11 Democratic senators led by California’s Alex Padilla slammed the potential for “harmful changes to our asylum system that will potentially deny lifesaving humanitarian protection for vulnerable people, including children, and fail to deliver any meaningful improvement to the situation at the border.”

The warning is aimed at a gang of six senators — three Republicans, three Democrats — who are trying to unlock President Joe Biden’s $106 billion supplemental funding request for aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Tougher border security is the GOP’s price for Ukraine aid, which represents a change to a traditional immigration-policy equation: Republicans get border security, yes, but Democrats get aid to Ukraine, not accommodations for undocumented immigrants or other concessions. The lead Democratic negotiator, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), tried to add in citizenship for Dreamers early on in the talks, and Republicans shot it down.

For immigration reform advocates, it means their longtime priorities have been traded away and replaced with Biden’s foreign aid priorities. And they are starting to step up pressure on Senate Democrats and the White House.

“These proposals do nothing to secure our border or live up to the will of the American electorate to see both humane, orderly processes at the border and paths to legal status for long-settled immigrants in the U.S.,” said Immigration Hub’s Kerri Talbot in a statement Tuesday.

Talbot worked for Senate Democratic leaders in 2013, the last time Congress tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and as executive director of Immigration Hub, she now advises progressive immigration organizations on strategy. Her advice is to vote no: “No Democrat should accept these ransom demands that would harm immigrants.”

The negotiations are now centered around three big issues:

Asylum standards: When migrants apply for asylum, they are screened to determine whether they have “credible fear” they will be persecuted or tortured if they’re returned home. Republicans want a higher standard, which would result in more migrants being removed.

Safe third countries: There are discussions about expanding the number of countries where asylum seekers would be required to seek protection first if they pass through on the way to the U.S. border. Canada, for instance, is designated as a “safe third country,” while Mexico isn’t.

Parole authority: Presidents have the authority to temporarily admit people to the U.S. for humanitarian or other reasons. For instance, Biden has used these “parole” powers  to allow in thousands of people from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela, Cuba and elsewhere; Republicans want to vastly curtail this authority. 

In terms of the politics of these three issues, the Democrats involved in the talks seem resigned to accepting a revised asylum threshold, deeply hostile to meddling with parole authority and somewhere in the middle on safe third countries.
The senators who spoke out Wednesday said any substantive changes should be paired with concessions on immigration policies, not on Ukraine funding.

“Any proposal considering permanent changes to our asylum and immigration system needs to include a clear path to legalization for long-standing undocumented immigrants,” the senators said in a statement, which was co-signed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 party leader and a longtime advocate for Dreamers.

The left has other gripes about the process: (1) that Biden is so hungry for an immigration deal that he is willing to give away too much, and (2) that the Senate negotiators are not close to the activists.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) used to be the go-to Democrat on the issue, but he’s been sidelined by corruption allegations. (He did sign the Padilla-led statement.)

Unlike the Gang of Eight that negotiated a big Senate immigration bill in 2013, this current group of six Senate negotiators doesn’t include any Latinos. “It’s the Gang of White,” one activist groaned.

The right, meanwhile, is hardly united itself on the emerging Senate deal. House Republicans are still pushing H.R. 2, a more wide-ranging and restrictive bill that Democrats would never accept. In a sign of how the base will react to any potential deal, Heritage Action for America came out against the Senate talks yesterday and demanded that Republicans commit to H.R. 2 instead.

House Speaker Mike Johnson will be attending the Senate GOP lunch Wednesday, where the border talks are sure to come up, giving an indication of how close or far apart House and Senate Republicans are.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has tried to push the talks along by setting a deadline of next week for a vote on the Biden aid package. But if it falls apart, all eyes will be on Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who both supports aid to Ukraine and is pushing hard to tie the aid to border security.

There is no obvious Plan B floating around, so Biden and McConnell, for very different reasons, are highly incentivized to figure this one out — and they are being cheered on by in-cycle Senate Democrats, who are starting to see the political upside of a deal: Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) all told POLITICO yesterday they were open to asylum policy changes.

“I am one that thinks it doesn’t hurt,” Tester said.

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