WASHINGTON — A number of Hispanic and Latino members of Congress, as well as advocacy groups, are growing increasingly concerned that President Joe Biden could strike a deal with Republicans on immigration that they consider unacceptable in order to ensure the passage of its high priority country, Ukraine and Israel Aid Program.
The fear, said a Capitol Hill Democrat with knowledge of the negotiations, is that the president will accept border policy changes proposed by Republicans that are “unimaginably cruel.”
Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus demanded an “urgent” meeting with the White House more than a week ago. Yet even though the president was in Washington for much of that time, that never happened.
Biden’s top aides have prioritized communication with lawmakers directly involved in the negotiations, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Kyrsten Sinema, I.-Ariz., according to a senior administration official.
The official stressed that the White House understands the urgency and plans to step up its outreach to the Capitol this week — but that commitment will depend on the availability of a clear framework, which has not yet emerged.
The frustration of the Hispanic Caucus has been growing for some time. Last month, on at least two occasions, Democratic senators in the group huddled against Schumer and said they did not believe Republicans were negotiating in good faith. They also said they believed proposed immigration restrictions could divide the Democratic caucus heading into a key election year, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.
Schumer’s office said the purpose of the meeting was to update senators on the status of ongoing negotiations.
A senator at that meeting, Alex Padilla of California, said Saturday that “allowing an aid package for our allies to be held hostage in exchange for continued, cruel Trump-era immigration policies creates a dangerous precedent” and urged Biden “not to give in to these extreme demands.
Padilla argued that Senate Republicans’ proposals run counter to legislation that would “modernize our immigration system and responsibly manage our border.”
A senior administration official said White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients spoke with Padilla in recent days to hear his concerns, and that future conversations with other CHC members were possible in the coming days.
Much of the CHC’s efforts are led by the group’s leaders, including the chair, Rep. Nanette Barragán, Democrat of California, who has not been asked to engage or take part in negotiations despite its repeated efforts to do so, according to a source involved in the process.
“It would be an insult for the president not to meet with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at a time when none of the Senate Democratic negotiators are from the Latino community or representative border communities,” said a CHC member, who requested anonymity to speak. frankly and criticize “stupid” Democrats who are willing to give in to the demands of the Republican Party.
The lawmaker said that at a minimum, the immigration issue should be separated from the broader foreign aid agenda, but that the emerging details of the negotiations were concerning.
“It’s at least in part a betrayal of what (Biden) said for years on the campaign trail — and before and after,” the lawmaker said when asked what he would say to Biden in private. “If people wanted a second term for Donald Trump and his border policies, they would have elected Donald Trump in 2020.”
Another CHC lawmaker who requested to meet with Biden told NBC News that White House and Senate leaders “need to do more” to engage with the caucus.
“Border legislators know their districts better than anyone. I have been very disappointed with the administration’s lack of commitment to this very substantial additional package that ties foreign aid to fundamental changes in border and immigration policy,” Rep. Gabe Vasquez said Saturday. , a freshman Democrat from New Mexico.
Vasquez, who last month introduced a border and immigration package that included legislation backed by a handful of Republicans, said CHC members “deserve to be at the table before we are forced to vote on a bill on which we had no input or influence.”
Rep. Robert Menendez Jr., D-N.J., said in a statement that “permanently changing our asylum system and denying migrants this legal process is completely unacceptable” and urged Biden and Senate Democrats to “ make the GOP understand that essential aid to our allies cannot be used as a bargaining chip to the detriment of our American ideals and values as a nation of immigrants.
Concerns have increased further in recent days. Earlier this week, the White House appeared willing to concede some provisions that would limit the number of migrants eligible to enter the United States to seek asylum. Biden made his most direct public comment on the issue on Wednesday, saying, “I’m willing to make significant compromises on the border.”
The reaction from immigration advocacy groups was swift. A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups said Biden was “essentially telling Republicans that he is willing to adopt Trump’s policies at the border.” Laura St. John, legal director of the Florence Project, an Arizona-based immigration group, said the changes would be “simply devastating for people seeking safety in the United States.”
But the White House and Department of Homeland Security say now is the time to do something about immigration — even if it’s imperfect — because waiting could be much worse.
There is a “feeling that we must face the present moment. The time has come,” said an official.
Another official said that if something isn’t done at the border now, “we’re leaving the door open for someone like Stephen Miller to come in and do much worse,” the official said, referring to the architect of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. A third official said the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement would welcome more funding and detention space, and that they have long wanted to have a discussion about asylum.
The administration signaled it was open to tougher border measures after Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked the $110 billion supplemental package, which also included aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan . Such measures could include holding more migrants in detention while they await their asylum hearings, considering other countries to which they can be deported, and redefining the standard by which migrants are initially selected for asylum, known as the credible fear interview.
The negotiations, which resumed on Thursday, focused on two main elements. One concerns asylum restrictions, on which Senate Democratic negotiators made significant concessions. Like the administration, they have been willing to raise standards for successful screening of asylum applications, two informed sources said.
While the vast majority of migrants can currently pass a credible fear interview, only about 37 percent are officially granted asylum by an immigration judge, creating a large population of migrants in the United States who are ultimately not not eligible to live and work legally.
The credible fear test was “a big part of the conversation,” said a Democratic aide familiar with the talks, who added that the two sides still haven’t signed a deal but there was ” an opening to talk about it.”
But negotiators have been blocked over GOP demands to restrict the president’s ability to temporarily admit refugees on humanitarian parole. Democrats fear this could lead to prolonged periods of detention, including for children.
According to three sources familiar with the negotiations, the new Republican proposal calls for explicit restrictions on the use of parole and bans it as a border management tool, although it would not invalidate parole subsidies. existing for the beneficiaries. The GOP limits include exceptions for Cubans, a source said.
“The real sticking point is that asylum is not enough,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who is participating in the talks. “If we don’t get progress on parole,” he said, the deal won’t be able to get enough support from the Republican Party. “Many Republicans are fundamentally concerned that this administration has abused this policy to the tune of thousands of people, not individualized cases.”
Part of the reason immigration groups and some Democratic lawmakers are so frustrated is because they say Biden campaigned on a more progressive immigration agenda.
“Three years ago, voters categorically rejected Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. But this agenda is alive and well today in the Biden White House,” said Andrea Carcamo, policy director of Freedom for Immigrants. “Trampling on the human right to seek asylum in negotiations with an extremist and xenophobic Republican Party is another low blow for President Biden. »
While Democrats are at odds over how to handle the migrant crisis, Republicans are capitalizing on the issue as illegal border crossings continue to skyrocket. NBC News vote shows that the Republican Party now holds an 18-point lead on immigration management, while Democrats were narrowly ahead of Republicans on the issue under President Donald Trump.
But Biden and many of his allies believe that if he capable of reaching a bipartisan agreement on the issue, this will help resolve this vulnerability.
“Senate Republicans need to stop playing chicken with our national security. This is what they need to stop doing. They have to compromise,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday aboard Air Force One when asked about the status of negotiations. “The president said he was willing to compromise. He is.”