House Republicans push asylum restrictions, border security

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director Tae Johnson testifies before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security on the FY2024 budget request for the agency, Tuesday, April 18, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON – House Republicans for months have railed against the Biden administration’s handling of the U.S. border with Mexico, holding hearings, visiting border communities and promising to advance legislation to clamp down on illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

But so far, they have failed to unify behind a plan, delaying efforts to pass legislation.

Now they are hoping to change that. Republicans on Wednesday jump-started work on an immigration and border enforcement package that would remake immigration law to make it more difficult to apply for asylum and easier for the federal government to stop migrants from entering the U.S. It combines proposals from a number of conservative hardliners into a single bill.

The undertaking comes as Washington is putting renewed focus on border security, and the plight of thousands of migrants who show up seeking entry into the U.S., with a looming May deadline that is expected to end a federal COVID-era asylum policy. The hearing also comes as Republicans, more than 100 days into their new House majority, are under political pressure to deliver on a key campaign promise to secure the border.

The legislative package aims to revive a number of policies either enacted or proposed under then-President Donald Trump that restricted asylum rules. Republicans point out that illegal border crossings increased under President Joe Biden and cast the current situation at the border as overrun and dangerous for both migrants seeking safety and border communities.

Democrats on the House Judiciary panel swatted the bill as an extremist proposal that had no chance in the Democratic-held Senate. It has also been criticized by moderate Republicans who would be crucial to it passing the House, where Republicans have a slim 222-213 majority.

“Republicans have chosen a narrow path that imposes extreme pain and hardship on the most vulnerable people while doing nothing to actually solve the problem," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill would make it more difficult for asylum-seekers to prove in initial interviews that they are fleeing political, religious or racial persecution, impose a $50 fee on adults who apply for asylum and require migrants to make the asylum claim at an official port of entry. It aims to expand requirements that employers, including in the agriculture industry, check the immigration status of their employees through a program called E-verify.

The bill would also enact a Trump-era policy that the Biden administration is pursuing, the so-called “safe third country” requirement, which generally denies asylum to migrants who show up at the U.S. southern border without first seeking protection in a country they passed through.

Conservative hardliners who say migrants are taking advantage of the asylum process are backing the bill.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a conservative member of the Freedom Caucus who has pushed aggressive border measures, said the legislation “reflects in a package form basically where we’ve all wanted to head, which is to actually enforce the law.”

“Stop releasing people into the United States who don’t have a legitimate claim to asylum that you need to adjudicate,” he said.

However, Roy and Jordan are contending with a group of fellow Republicans who have condemned attempts at aggressively limiting asylum claims as cruel and out-of-touch with Latino communities.

Rep. Tony Gonzales, a fellow Texas Republican who represents a long portion of the U.S-Mexico border from El Paso to San Antonio, has emerged as Roy's foil in the GOP's border debate. He insists that measures to toughen border enforcement also be coupled with increasing legal immigration, such as work visas.

Moderate House Republicans, like Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, are pushing for “a balanced approach” that would also open up legal immigration. “People want to come here. They work hard. I think they eventually become great citizens,” Bacon said, adding “but what’s going on at the border is a catastrophe.”

The GOP has made inroads with Latino communities in recent years, and while Republican voters from those communities support tougher border enforcement, Latino Republicans also want to see an increase in legal immigration. The Congressional Hispanic Conference, a group of 18 House Republicans, held a bilingual news conference in front of the Capitol on Tuesday to demand a seat at the negotiating table.

“This is what the face of the border crisis looks like,” Gonzales told reporters. “Take a good hard look, because we’re not going to be quiet about it. We’re not going to let others just dictate what happens.”

Afterward, Gonzales suggested the bill being considered by the Judiciary Committee is just one option, and “has a long way to go before it hits primetime.” The Homeland Security Committee, where he holds a seat, is working on its own legislation to increase border enforcement, he said.

The Congressional Hispanic Conference highlighted three policies it wants: designating cartels as terrorist organizations, increasing criminal penalties for people who smuggle fentanyl and increasing salaries for Customs and Border Protection agents.

Democrats insisted they want to work on a bipartisan package that would increase legal immigration and resources at the border, but dismissed the Republican proposal as little more than political rhetoric.

“The border is broken, but it’s broken because we have absolutely been derelict in our responsibility as members of Congress to open up legal pathways and create better management at our border,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from Texas. “In order to spite migrants, we’re willing to say we want zero migration. That is what is fundamentally behind this bill.”

Meanwhile, advocates for immigrants and some Democrats have slammed Biden for considering Trump-era policies like detaining families who cross into the U.S. illegally. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, last month told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the president would become “the asylum denier in chief” if he pursues such policies.

Even if Republicans manage to pass a bill through the House, hardline border enforcement and severe restraints on asylum are unlikely to advance in the Democratic-held Senate, where negotiators prefer to pair border policies with an increase in legal immigration or a path to citizenship for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

“There is not consensus in either party,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, a senior advisor for immigration at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There is certainly not consensus across the aisle.”

The debate in Congress will likely play out just as an influx of migrants is expected at the southern border. Title 42, a Trump-era rule adopted by the Biden administration, is set to expire on May 11. It suspended the rights for many to seek asylum during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent U.S. immigration policy has been cobbled together through executive actions and legal rulings, Brown said, without any significant action by Congress in decades to address a new reality at the southern border: people, including many children, arriving from a host of countries to seek asylum.

“It’s going to get bad and I don’t think the (Biden) administration is prepared,” she said, adding, “We are at an inflection point. We will see again whether people will get serious about legislating and come to the table, or will they pound the table."

Gonzales acknowledged the political difficulties around immigration but pointed to the impact in his home district along the border. He hosted Arizona's Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat-turned-independent, for a border visit last month, and said he has been holding calls with Democrats and Republicans in hopes of crafting a bipartisan proposal.

“Congress hasn’t done anything in decades, the White House has punted time and time again, and it is no doubt a difficult problem set,” he said. “But I think it’s a problem worth fighting for.”