Politics

Will Trump be able to kill a bipartisan immigration deal?

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President Biden’s rhetoric on immigration has lately sounded surprisingly Republican. He recently said he would shut down the southern border “right now” if Congress sends him a border security bill.

Biden is aware that the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border is a political liability for him, and he’s been open to meeting many of their demands to secure the border. But now Republicans are backing away from a deal as Donald Trump does his best to stop it. Here’s what’s going on.

How we got on the cusp of an immigration deal, real quick

This fall, Republicans refused to continue funding for Ukraine’s war with Russia. They said they would consider approving money for Ukraine — and now Israel — if Biden “secures the border.” Biden was open to that, and here we are.

This deal would make a big change in how people apply for asylum

The measure notably contains no pathway to citizenship for people already in the country illegally — something Democrats typically demand. Rather, it would focus just on the border by making it much harder for people to apply for asylum after crossing illegally. Under this bill, migrants who cross illegally couldn’t apply for asylum at all on days when the border is overwhelmed.

“It is a shutdown of the border and everyone actually gets turned around.” That’s how the top Senate Republican on these negotiations, Sen. James Lankford (Okla.), described a key proposal of this legislation.

Now, migrants can apply for asylum once caught by U.S. officials regardless of numbers at the border. But their asylum claims can take years to solve in backlogged immigration courts, and by then, many migrants are already embedded in their communities in America — albeit illegally. Despite Biden’s tough talk about stopping people at the border, his administration has ramped way down deportations of people elsewhere in the country.

“It would give me, as president, a new emergency authority to shut down the border when it becomes overwhelmed,” Biden said Friday, vowing to use it on the first day the bill becomes law.

But a border deal probably won’t happen, because Trump

Trump opposes pretty much any deal with Biden, and that’s enough for many congressional Republicans to reject it. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who gets to decide whether an immigration bill gets a vote there, has said the deal would be “dead on arrival” in the House if it looks anything like news reports suggest.

Trump’s argument is transparently political: Republicans will share some of the blame for the border if they do this. “They are using this horrific Senate Bill as a way of being able to put the BORDER DISASTER onto the shoulders of the Republicans,” he said on social media. Reading between the lines, he also wants to keep attacking Biden where the president is weak and Trump is strong.

When the border is chaotic, Americans tend to want much stricter border policies, Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration analyst with the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, told me earlier this month. And Republicans have been the party of tougher immigration restrictions.

But the border was just as intransigent of an issue under Trump

Even though Trump had a Republican-controlled Congress the first half of his presidency, there were no major changes to immigration laws. Trump mostly went at it alone: He build some portions of a wall along the border, he separated children from their parents, and he forced migrants to wait in Mexico, where they were often targeted by gangs.

Why the border is so chaotic right now

Border crossings have been at or near record highs pretty much since Biden took office. That’s in part because asylum seekers think they have a better chance under a Biden administration than a Trump one, some immigration experts tell me.

Democrats and immigration advocates say it’s mostly because of issues out of politicians’ control, such as climate change, or covid crashing economies. “We’re in an era of displacement and more migration, period,” said Cris Ramón, a senior adviser on immigration for UnidosUS, a Hispanic civil rights group.

The last time lawmakers got close to a deal was a decade ago, under Barack Obama’s administration. The Senate even passed a bipartisan bill. But House Republicans stopped it cold. The top House Republican, John A. Boehner (Ohio), essentially said that right-wing lawmakers in the party didn’t want an immigration deal.

“Believe me, I tried a dozen times to bring immigration reform to the floor,” he said after he retired. “I got slapped down by my colleagues, slapped down by other leaders.”

Obama decided to do what he could by himself, giving protections to people brought to the country illegally as children. The hope was that Congress would make it permanent, but dreamers’ fates have languished in Congress ever since. And so have any other changes to the immigration system or the border.

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