Rafael Bernal and Rebecca Beitsch, The Hill, December 2, 2023
Immigration advocates are nearing their wits’ end as Senate negotiators barrel toward a deal that would permanently change immigration law in exchange for another round of Ukraine funding.
The four Latino Democrats in the chamber — who are not part of the talks — have made clear that the fundamental precept being negotiated is unacceptable to them.
“Using a one-time spending package to enact these unrelated permanent policy changes sets a dangerous precedent and risks assistance to our international partners. Any proposal considering permanent changes to our asylum and immigration system needs to include a clear path to legalization for long-standing undocumented immigrants,” they wrote.
But the negotiations have explicitly excluded any form of legalization, while tying border policy and wartime aid to Ukraine, two previously unrelated issues.
That core concept has made waves among immigration advocates outside Congress and in the House, where the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and its allies have a larger contingent.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) called the Ukraine-border amalgam “an aberration.”
On the border policy side, talks are revolving over changes to tighten asylum policy — a concession immigration advocates don’t take lightly — and curbing the president’s immigration parole powers, blowing a hole in President Biden’s border strategy.
Those are potential concessions immigration advocates would hope to avoid in tit-for-tat negotiations, let alone in a deal with no Republican concessions on immigration.
Republicans have so far been successful at portraying both Ukraine funding and their border policy proposals as national security priorities.
That’s making some Democrats nervous.
“It’s going to be ugly. I think the Senate effectively is going to sell us out. And when I say us out, it’s not just border communities. It’s not just the issue of asylum seekers and refugees attempting to be in this country,” said Grijalva.
“Allowing the Republicans to grab this narrative and to continue to attempt to poison with that narrative the upcoming election — because they see that it’s their issue, because they have no other issue — I think that’s what they sold out.”
Other House Democrats also said they were surprised by the nature of the talks, including that limitations on immigration would be swapped for something wholly unrelated.
And advocates say the core issue is being overlooked: The proposed changes threaten to endanger human lives.
“The credible fear standard is being treated as a technical point that can be traded away, but in fact it’s the heart of the United States’ compliance with the Refugee Convention and if it’s out of reach, access to the entirety of the asylum system is blocked,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center.
“Heightening it would be historic … are these lawmakers just OK with knowing that the U.S. will be regularly sending bona fide refugees back to harm?”
But pressure to fund Israel and Ukraine is intensifying, and Republicans could end up forcing Senate Democrats to take a tough vote letting down either a foreign ally or a core constituency.
Meanwhile, the White House is pushing Congress to act on a supplemental to fund aid to Israel and Ukraine, Indo-Pacific security and border security.
The administration is likely to be more open to asylum changes than to parole restrictions, which would undermine President Biden’s border strategy.
With House GOP opposition to the supplemental almost a certainty, a Senate deal — if it is reached and passed — will face an uphill battle in the lower chamber.
And any bill that tightens border policy without loosening immigration laws seems likely to split apart the unity that has characterized House Democrats this congress.