Seemingly moribund talks on toughening U.S. border policy in exchange for providing aid to Ukraine were revived this week after the White House proposed allowing U.S. officials to summarily expel migrants at the border under some circumstances.
After weeks of flagging negotiations, the White House has floated a proposal to allow border officials to expel migrants without asylum screenings on days when border crossings are particularly high, senators and aides said.
Key details remain to be fleshed out, including the number of migrant crossings that would trigger that new power. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has been involved in the negotiations, said Wednesday that he believed the authority should kick in on days when crossings reach 3,000 or less, while some Democrats prefer a higher number of 5,000 crossings or more before agents can turn away migrants.
“We’re talking about what would be the triggering mechanism to detain and do expedited removal,” Tillis said.
A potential deal on immigration has become central to talks about an aid package for Israel and Ukraine. Republicans said they will not consider the package unless it includes measures that would reduce the number of migrants who enter the United States, which they frame as a crucial national security issue.
President Biden said last week that he is willing to “make significant compromises on the border” as the price of winning passage of the aid package. “We need to fix the broken border system,” he added. “It is broken.”
The latest proposal marks a key concession by the White House and has already angered some liberal lawmakers and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who are comparing the policies to those supported by President Donald Trump.
At the same time, it remains unclear whether Republicans — who have demanded far more sweeping powers to detain and deport migrants — will accept the offer. The White House did not express any willingness to limit Biden’s power to parole certain categories of immigrants for humanitarian reasons, a key Republican demand.
Democrats have previously said they are open to raising the standard for granting an interview based on a “credible fear” of persecution, which would probably reduce the number of asylum cases. Another proposal would allow immigration authorities to more easily deport migrants who lose their asylum hearings.
Lawmakers are also discussing expanding detention capabilities, although the outlines of that discussion remain hazy.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the proposals.
Immigration has been a vexing issue for Biden throughout his tenure, as it was for his predecessors. He came to power promising to undo Trump’s tough anti-immigration policies, but he has found himself repeatedly caught between liberals demanding a more lenient approach and Republicans — along with a growing number of big-city Democrats — raising alarms about the influx of undocumented immigrants.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has been a lead negotiator for the administration for weeks. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Natalie Quillian and Shuwanza Goff, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, joined the talks in a more substantive way this week, lending them momentum.
The latest offer has injected the first signs of life in weeks into negotiations led by a small bipartisan group of senators, including Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). The group began talking after key Republicans said they would not approve Biden’s $110 billion security package for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific without changes to immigration policy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a direct appeal to senators for the funds on Tuesday in Washington, saying the United States must not abandon his nation as it fends off a Russian invasion or it would embolden Moscow to continue attacking its neighbors.
On Wednesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) met in Schumer’s office to discuss a path forward, after McConnell said on the Senate floor that he was “hopeful” the two sides could reach an agreement.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the second-ranking Senate Republican, said he was “encouraged” that the White House had put forward what he called a significant offer but said it is “unlikely” that senators would stay in session over the holidays to get to a deal. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has suggested he would not ask lawmakers in his chamber to remain in town and wait for the Senate to cut a deal unless significant progress is made.
Even if a deal is reached this week, it is unlikely that the Senate would be able to vote on any agreement before the new year, given the demands of passing legislation in the slow-moving Senate.
And a deal is hardly around the corner. Democrats are raising concerns that the new White House proposals could lead to widespread detention and deportation of immigrants.
“I don’t want the clock turned back to the Trump days,” Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Tex.) said.
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), who has put forward her own immigration reform proposals, said there was zero chance she would back a proposal close to what the White House proposed.
“I want a solution,” she said. “But what is being discussed on the Senate side will make things worse.”
And some Latino members are upset that the Hispanic Caucus has not been brought into the talks by the White House.
“We have been excluded. That’s not what the president campaigned on,” Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) said. Rep. Delia C. Ramirez (D-Ill) asked why the White House would create policy “without ever including the people most impacted.”
On the other side, after Republicans met privately Wednesday afternoon, several conservative members threw cold water on the talks.
“It’s way too little too late,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said. “Apparently they’re reading the polls and they realize, ‘Hey, the American public really doesn’t like this open border.’ Duh.”
Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.