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House-passed border bill may spark bipartisan immigration talks

GOP measure would restart border wall construction, restrict asylum

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., conducts a vote Thursday on the Republican border security package.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., conducts a vote Thursday on the Republican border security package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans passed a sweeping border security package Thursday that lawmakers in both parties and chambers said could spark bipartisan negotiations on immigration measures.

The House voted 219-213 to pass the bill, which would restart border wall construction, restrict asylum and more. No Democrats supported the bill, and two Republicans also voted against it: Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie and California Rep. John Duarte.

Both had concerns, albeit different ones, about a provision requiring all employers to electronically verify that new hires can work legally in the country. Duarte said he supported the border security policies in the bill but that he would have preferred a bill that could “bring some Democratic support and have a chance in the Senate.”

The Republican bill will not become law given opposition to many provisions from Democrats and a veto threat from President Joe Biden. Democratic lawmakers and human rights organizations have panned the measure as anti-immigrant.

But key senators said it could launch bipartisan, bicameral negotiations, particularly with the planned end Thursday night of the so-called Title 42 policy, a public health order that has allowed border agents to expel asylum-seekers without a hearing for more than three years.

“I’m looking for any port in a storm,” said Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who has struggled for years to get any serious immigration negotiations off the ground.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who teamed up last year with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent, to develop a bipartisan immigration framework, said Thursday that the House bill “is a good starting place.”

Tillis said the measure will not advance in the Senate without changes but “it will be absolutely an essential part of a border security strategy that would be in a bill we could get 60 votes for.”

At a press conference after the House vote, Speaker Kevin McCarthy commended Tillis and Sinema for their bipartisan work and said he hopes the Senate passes something so the two chambers can form a conference committee to resolve their differences.

“We once again just passed a bill,” the California Republican said. “The Senate has done nothing.”

Strong security

Congressional Republicans have made U.S.-Mexico border security a priority amid high migration levels. The House voted hours ahead of the end of the Title 42 policy, which is expected to further increase migration.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., called the bill the “strongest border security package that Congress has ever taken up.”

The bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to resume construction of a border wall that Biden halted and invest more in border security technology and personnel.

It would make it harder for migrants to qualify for asylum, permit migrant children to be detained for months with their parents and crack down on the employment of undocumented immigrants.

[House GOP makes last-minute tweaks to border security bill]

The legislation would also limit federal funding to nongovernmental organizations that assist migrants and curb the government’s authority to allow certain migrants to come to the U.S. legally under a form of humanitarian protection known as parole.

Several Democrats said in letters, statements and press conferences this week that they were “ready to work” with Republicans on alternative immigration legislation that doesn’t undermine the asylum system and allows migrants to continue seeking refuge in the United States.

They argue the situation at the border will not improve unless lawmakers create more legal pathways for migration given that deterrence policies deployed under former President Donald Trump’s administration didn’t stop migrants from trying to enter the country.

The moderate New Democrat Coalition’s immigration task force has already been holding meetings “with various stakeholders, including some of our reasonable colleagues across the aisle,” California Rep. Salud Carbajal, a vice chair of the task force, said.

Many House Democrats cited a comprehensive immigration bill Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif., reintroduced Wednesday as the type of solution that’s needed, but also acknowledged they may need to accept something smaller.

Flurry of proposals

The end to the Title 42 policy, and concerns surrounding DHS’s preparedness to manage any resulting increase in the number of migrants crossing the border, has sparked a flurry of legislative proposals on the issue in addition to the House-passed bill.

Tillis and Sinema introduced a bill earlier this month that would allow border agents to continue expelling migrants, as they have under the Title 42 policy, for an additional two years. Sinema told reporters Thursday they have “continued to add members every day” as co-sponsors, and she expects more to join once the Title 42 policy expires.

Durbin announced plans to introduce a bill this week with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York to provide more resources to border agents and communities that welcome migrants — but other major Senate players on immigration said Thursday they had not seen or been briefed on that effort.

As of Wednesday, Durbin said it had yet to be decided whether his bill would appropriate new money or reprogram funds. Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said Thursday he hadn’t seen the measure but expects Congress to ultimately approve some emergency funding.

But Senate Republicans are unlikely to agree to that without other policy solutions. “You’re just throwing good money after bad [policies] if you don’t change your asylum laws,” Judiciary ranking member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.

A group of Senate Republicans, led by Oklahoma’s James Lankford, held a press conference Thursday to push for restoring many of the same Trump-era policies in the House bill, like the Remain in Mexico policy and a ban on releasing migrants while their immigration court proceedings continue.

“Republicans do actually have solutions that Democrats and President Biden have turned a blind eye to and a deaf ear,” Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst said.

Ernst and Mississippi GOP Sen. Roger Wicker touted bills that would allow states to procure materials the federal government already purchased for the halted border wall construction and use them to finish the job.

Tennessee GOP Sen. Bill Hagerty has pushed his bill that would use the fentanyl crisis as a basis for continuing Title 42 in place of the pandemic emergency. He sought unanimous consent to pass the measure Wednesday in the Senate, but Democrats blocked it.

“Our hope is to try to move on something as quickly as we possibly can to be able to get something resolved,” Lankford said. “I think the Senate will pull together multiple good ideas from different bills and to be able to combine a bill. It can’t be so big that it doesn’t get done.”

‘Markedly different’

Sinema said she saw this year’s immigration legislative efforts as “markedly different” than past failed attempts. “For the first time in well over a decade and a half, you have House and Senate members actually speaking with each other,” Sinema said.

Some Democrats, however, threw cold water on hopes for a bipartisan immigration compromise.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a vocal proponent of immigrants’ rights proposals, said he doesn’t see the enforcement-focused House bill as a good “opening gambit” toward compromise — “unless you believe that negotiation starts from one extreme to another extreme and somehow you’re going to meet in the middle.”

House Judiciary Committee ranking member Jerrold Nadler said he doesn’t want to give up on a bipartisan immigration compromise. “But with this Republican majority in the House, I’m very skeptical,” the New York Democrat said.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, was more blunt: “I don’t see how passing a cruel, unworkable bill opens up space for an actual bipartisan compromise.”

California Rep. Lou Correa, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee’s border panel, predicted Congress would not pass an immigration bill until after the 2024 elections.

“I hope I’m wrong,” Correa said. “But I think immigration reform has a better chance after Biden is reelected.”