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Lindsey Graham confronted with the ghosts of the ‘gang of 8’

“We would have a very different situation” had that bill passed, acting DHS secretary says

Kevin McAleenan, acting Homeland Security secretary, says the border situation would have been better than it is now had the ‘gang of eight’ legislation from 2013 been enacted. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Kevin McAleenan, acting Homeland Security secretary, says the border situation would have been better than it is now had the ‘gang of eight’ legislation from 2013 been enacted. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

If Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham is looking for strategies on moving his immigration overhaul legislation, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan presented one possible path: Graham’s old work with the “gang of eight” that produced a bill the Senate passed in 2013 with a veto-proof majority. 

At a hearing Tuesday before Graham’s panel, McAleenan said the current border situation now wouldn’t be as bad if the bipartisan gang of eight compromise of 2013 — which passed the Democratic Senate 68-32 but was never taken up by the Republican House — had become law.

“We would have a very different situation” had that bill passed, McAleenan said. “We would have 20,000 additional border patrol agents, we would have technology comprehensively deployed … we would be a lot more secure on the border.”

Tuesday’s hearing was ostensibly to discuss Graham’s immigration bill that seeks to change asylum law to help stem the flow of migrants from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Instead, it evolved into another update on the border crisis, along with statements from both Republicans and Democrats saying they were willing to work together on short-term funding to help with the border emergency, and possibly on a larger immigration compromise reminiscent of the 2013 attempt.

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Graham said his committee will mark up his asylum bill sometime next week, signaling that he is willing to compromise with Democrats to advance the measure.

“I am willing to help Central America’s economy, I’m willing to help President Trump build a wall, I am willing to work on [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program]. I’m willing to do almost anything and everything to fix this mess, but doing nothing is off the table,” the South Carolina Republican said.

Next week will see more border action, because the Senate Appropriations Committee will also mark up the $4.5 billion supplemental spending bill requested by the White House that would provide additional humanitarian relief at the southern border. That package includes $3.3 billion for humanitarian assistance to expand shelters for migrants and $700 million to enhance information technology systems at the border.

Republicans tried to get the border funding attached to the recent disaster relief bill, but Democrats rejected the idea.

Graham’s bill would change asylum laws so that migrants would have to apply from their home countries or in a third country instead of at the U.S. border, and it would expand detention facilities to address the surge of migrants arriving at the southwest border. The bill would also modify a court agreement known as the Flores Settlement so that there would be no time limit, or a longer time limit, on holding migrant children in detention facilities. Currently, the limit is 20 days under Flores.

The Trump administration has repeatedly called Flores a “loophole” in the immigration system and has sought to modify it, but the settlement has the force of law.

Graham said his bill would be a “death blow” to human smugglers who are trying to take advantage of the U.S. immigration system. “This legislation is designed to deal with the crisis. If it got out in Central America that you could no longer apply for asylum in the United States, they would stop coming,” he said.

McAleenan highlighted how the number of migrants arriving at the southwest border has steadily increased throughout the past five months. “This crisis is unlike anything our country has ever faced,” he said.

McAleenan said 60,000 children have entered into DHS custody, both unaccompanied and as part of family units, in the past 40 days, and more than 5,800 individuals were apprehended in a recent 24-hour period.

In May alone, border agents apprehended 144,000 migrants at the southwest border, according to Customs and Border Protection. That number is up 32 percent from April, and May was the third consecutive month in which this total has surpassed 100,000.

Democrats also signaled that they are ready to work with Republicans on Graham’s bill to get it passed, and also on any supplemental appropriations legislation for the border emergency.

“We’re willing to put the money we support ensuring that [the Department of Health and Human Services] can care for unaccompanied minors. We support ensuring that CBP can safely process migrants seeking refuge. We just want to ensure basic standards of humanitarian care,” Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy said.

“I hope Republicans will finally realize that we have to do this with Republicans and Democrats together,” he added.

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