House border security bill bumped amid Republican concerns

Internal division over the measure comes as the Biden administration faces rising numbers of migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border

Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, walks down the House steps after votes this month.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, walks down the House steps after votes this month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 23, 2023 at 7:34pm

Some House Republicans have raised concerns about legislation backed by their party leadership that seeks to curtail migration at the border, which has derailed plans to hold a vote on border security issues in the first weeks of the year.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., had included the border security bill in a list released in December of so-called “ready-to-go” legislation that would be brought to the House floor for a vote “in the first two weeks of 2023.”

The border bill, which was introduced by Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas and has 58 co-sponsors, would authorize the Homeland Security chief to block any foreign citizen from entering the U.S. if the official decides it “is necessary in order to achieve operational control over such border.”

Scalise also promised an early vote on a second immigration bill that would ensure federal immigration authorities are notified if an undocumented immigrant purchases a firearm.

But neither bill was included in the weekly schedule sent out Friday by Scalise’s office, and a person familiar with the status of the border security legislation confirmed it had been delayed. Republican opposition to the border bill was first reported by The Washington Post.

The postponement of legislation on border security — a key focus of the Republican conference — previews the potential political hurdles to come for the narrow majority on issues they promised to voters but might draw concern from more moderate members.

Concerns raised

Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Republican from a border district in Texas, said through a spokesperson on Monday that he opposed Roy’s bill, slamming it as one of those “messaging bills that have no chance of being signed into law.” He also condemned the bill for severely restricting asylum access.

“It proposes a total shutdown at the border, further emboldening human smugglers to sneak people in through the back door,” Gonzales said. “Our immigration system is broken beyond belief. Covering up the symptoms without addressing the root causes will only cause it to collapse entirely.”

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., also expressed hesitation with Roy’s bill. He said Monday, through a spokesperson, that his “primary goal” is to have the legislation be considered by the House Homeland Security Committee before it goes to the floor so committee members “can review and improve it as needed.”

“Some critics have said the bill could totally shut down asylum requests. I’m not sure that is the case, which is why this bill needs to go through the regular process,” Bacon said.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., can only lose four votes from his own party to pass partisan legislation in the House. Legislation backed by only House Republicans is unlikely to advance in the Democrat-controlled Senate regardless.

Immigration enforcement also came up as an issue during negotiations in early January between McCarthy and Republican lawmakers who opposed his bid for speaker. And Republicans generally have emerged united on plans to focus this year on immigration issues and oversight of the Biden administration’s border policies.

Roy's office defended his bill against concerns from those in his party in a Twitter thread on Monday. His office called on Republicans to “show we are SERIOUS about ending this crisis through ‘detain or turn-away’” and said they “should bring this bill to the floor for a vote ASAP.”

His office also claimed Roy's bill “still allows asylum seekers to claim asylum at our border and not be turned away,” but rather that asylum-seekers would have to be held in immigration detention facilities rather than released pending hearings.

Rep. Mark E. Green, R-Tenn., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, also voiced his support Monday for Roy’s border security bill, which he also co-sponsored.

In a tweet, Green called the proposal “a commonsense bill that will rein in the rogue [Department of Homeland Security] and force it to abide by the laws enacted by Congress to help secure the border,” and he called on the House to pass it.

Border security focus

Internal division over the border security bill comes as the Biden administration faces rising numbers of migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Border agents saw an 11 percent uptick in the number of unique migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border between November and December, according to the most recent data released Friday evening by Customs and Border Protection.

The number of overall migrant encounters, which includes some individuals counted more than once after making multiple attempts to cross, cracked 250,000 in December — a higher number than in any month since the agency started tracking overall encounters in 2020.

Absent action from Congress on the border, the Biden administration has attempted to rein in border crossings through a recent series of “carrot-and-stick” migration initiatives.

The administration announced a program in October to allow a subset of Venezuelans with American sponsors to come to the U.S. under a temporary status, while also allowing Venezuelan migrants who had crossed the border without authorization to be expelled back to Mexico. Earlier this month, the administration expanded this program to include Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans.

According to CBP, the number of Venezuelans crossing the border without authorization decreased by 82 percent between September 2022 and December 2022. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also said Thursday at a conference that encounters with migrants from all those nations “have dropped significantly” in the two weeks since the initiative was expanded.

Those high border numbers are likely to provide fodder for House Republicans to tear into Homeland Security officials during congressional hearings.

Rep. James R. Comer, R-Ky., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, announced last week that his panel will hold a hearing the week of Feb. 6 to investigate the Biden administration’s border policies.