The fate of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine rests on the ability of lawmakers to broker a deal on an issue that has eluded their grasp for decades: immigration.
After Republicans demanded border security changes to send billions of dollars more in aid to Ukraine, which is struggling to fend off a Russian invasion, as well as to Israel and Taiwan, a bipartisan group of seven senators is now tasked with reaching an agreement on thorny immigration issues. Congress has not taken meaningful action on immigration in decades, with broad reform deals in 2006 and 2013 failing to make it into law and the Republican members of the negotiating groups facing fierce blowback from conservative voters.
That track record has led to a glum tone on Capitol Hill as the group of senators is stuck on issues including whether to force some migrants to apply for asylum from Mexico or other countries instead of at the southern border, and whether and how to reduce the number of migrants who are released at the border and allowed to wait for their court dates inside the United States. Republicans would also like to limit President Biden from using of humanitarian parole for certain categories of immigrants, a practice they believe is encouraging more people to try to cross the border.
“I wish Republicans weren’t demanding that we solve a really complicated domestic political issue in order to keep” Russian President Vladimir Putin “from marching through Europe, but that’s where we are,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a lead negotiator in the group.
The politics have shifted even further on immigration since the earlier failed deals, with a majority of voters disapproving of how Biden has handled the border, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers moving farther apart on finding potential solutions. Some Democrats concede that changes to the asylum system are needed and could help the party politically, but they face ire from parts of their base that view the proposals as a betrayal of their party’s commitment to more welcoming immigration policies.
Republicans have moved to the right on the issue and do not want to discuss adding protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as Dreamers, a previously bipartisan priority that regularly came up in past immigration talks, or any other paths to legalization.
That pushed 11 Senate Democrats, including Sen. Alex Padilla (Calif.) and the No. 2. Senate Democrat Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), to sign a statement opposing changes to asylum law being included in the package. “Any proposal considering permanent changes to our asylum and immigration system needs to include a clear path to legalization for long-standing undocumented immigrants,” they said Wednesday.
Republicans argue that Democrats should want a deal on an issue they face disapproval on, and they dismiss criticism from Democrats that they are tying crucial international security issues to a domestic albatross. “The Dems need to understand that we view this, the southern border, as a national security crisis,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said. “And if we’re going to do a national security supplemental, it’s got to include the border.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday announced that if an immigration agreement is not reached, then he would proceed to a vote on the funding package next week anyway. But Thune said Republicans are willing to block a vote on the measure if the border changes they want are not included.
“This is not one of these cases when we can repeat and regurgitate partisan talking points, fail to come to an agreement, and then blame the other side for that failure and go home and believe then we can come back next week,” said Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), another of the main negotiators and one of the strongest backers of Ukraine in Congress. “Ukraine is out of bullets. They’re giving up their lives.”
Biden in October asked Congress to approve $106 billion in emergency aid to cover funding for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific region, border security and humanitarian aid. Many House Republicans are skeptical of sending more money to Ukraine. Earlier this month, they passed a stand-alone aid bill for Israel, pairing the legislation with cuts to the Internal Revenue Service. That measure was dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where there is still broad support for Ukraine among Republicans.
But Republican leaders demanded any funding measure include immigration policy changes in addition to border security funding. This is a strategy House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has endorsed, even as some far-right lawmakers in his conference have said they are not interested in voting for a Ukraine aid package, with or without border changes.
The talks are complicated further by long-running disagreements over federal spending levels for the next fiscal year, which have been intertwined at times with Biden’s emergency aid request. Biden and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) agreed in late spring to $1.59 trillion of discretionary spending for fiscal 2024 in exchange for suspending the debt limit.
The hard-right House Freedom Caucus hated that deal — which averted what could have been a catastrophic default — and nearly forced two government shutdowns this fall over demands for steeper spending cuts.
But Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), head of the Freedom Caucus, appeared Wednesday to back down from those demands, which in October helped lead to McCarthy’s ouster.
“It’s still too much for many of us, but it was agreed to around Memorial Day was this [debt limit agreement] number of $1.59 trillion,” Perry said. “No more gimmicks. Most of the House voted for it. Most of the Senate voted for it. That’s where we have to be. Don’t be adding stuff on to it. Let’s write the appropriations bills, let’s get the spending bills right. Let’s set that as the number. And then when we do that, let’s start conferencing bills.”
Senate negotiators, including Murphy, Bennet, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have homed in on a number main policy areas, according to multiple sources briefed on the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The lawmakers have made the most headway on proposals that would tighten the criteria for asylum seekers to enter the United States and qualify for a hearing before an immigration judge.
But Republicans argue that changing the standard only applies to a small fraction of migrants who show up at the border every day, and would like to see more sweeping changes to policy for migrants who enter the country illegally. Many are detained by law enforcement, then released until they can appear before an immigration judge, a hearing that may be months or years away. Such a change would require building new detention centers for migrants, lawmakers said, along with spending for Border Patrol agents and immigration judges.
“Parole is kind of an easy way to be able to say it, but it’s really what to do with that 7,000 people that are just released into the country,” Lankford said, noting the number of migrants who he said did not apply for asylum at the border but were released to await court dates on one day in October. “Currently, they are released by parole. So the issue is not parole, it’s what do you do with those 7,000 people?”
Republicans have also been pushing to codify a rule from the Trump era that would make migrants who pass through a “safe third country” on their way to the border ineligible to apply for asylum at the border. The Biden administration in February unveiled plans to implement a similar but more lenient program and is defending the policy against a challenge in federal court. A number of Republicans said Tuesday they would find it hard to support the spending bill without the rule, but Democrats have so far resisted agreeing to the change.
“Even if you believe people are allowed to migrate, they don’t necessarily have a right to migrate to the U.S.,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the 2013 bipartisan “gang of eight” that drafted failed immigration legislation. “If what they’re fleeing is oppression, that doesn’t mean necessarily that the U.S. is the only place they can go to.”
Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) said it would be “very tough” to win Republican support without a third-country asylum provision, while Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said it was the only part of the deal that would “make a real difference.”
Immigrant rights groups have been reacting with alarm as the negotiations proceed, putting pressure on Senate Democrats not to strike a deal. “Republicans, with apparent complicity of some Democrats, seem ready to make permanent new and damaging policy changes that would gut the asylum system and create more chaos and disorder at the southern border,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, the executive director of the America’s Voice advocacy group, in a statement. “No Democrat should advance key elements of Donald Trump and Stephen Miller’s wish list.”
In the meantime, the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance, lawmakers said. By the end of the year, according to some estimates, its small but resilient military could face crucial materiel shortages, imperiling territory that its fighters have liberated from Russian control. “I’m surprised they’ve lasted as long as they have. I’m expecting, soon, to see operational effect, on the battlefield, artillery units saying they can’t fire at lucrative targets because they just don’t have enough ammunition, maybe medical units without pharmaceuticals,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
That has animated negotiators, especially Democrats, to continue talks even as Murphy has characterized the proposals as “Republican demands” that are “pretty, pretty high.” According to Bennet, “That’s why we’re hanging in there the way we are. I don’t just mean me. I mean, all of us, including the Republicans. I think there are a lot of us on both sides of the aisle who really understand just how high the stakes are.”
Jeff Stein and Paul Kane contributed to this report.