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Updated Nov 8, 2023, 9:33pm EST
politics

Key Democrats temper expectations for a border deal as Ukraine aid hangs in the balance

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The News

As bipartisan Senate talks over the border get under way, the lead Democrats involved are offering a warning: Don’t get your hopes too high for a deal.

“It would be hard to overstate what the degree of difficulty is here,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. told Semafor. “This is going to be a very, very difficult negotiation and difficult conversation.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. was even more blunt with reporters. “It’s not a high likelihood of success,” he said. “I think it’s really dangerous to tie the future of Ukraine to a domestic political issue.”

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Senate Republicans have insisted they won’t throw their support behind further assistance to Kyiv unless they secure more restrictive border policies. For their part, the Biden administration and Democrats say they’re willing to revise the law.

“We fully endorse the need for policy changes, not in piecemeal form but in a comprehensive form,” Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday during a Senate Appropriations hearing.

While Sens. Murphy and Bennet are expected to head the Democratic side of talks, Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla. and Thom Tillis, R-N.C are the key negotiators for Republicans. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., rounds out the working group.

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“What I want to see us do is navigate ourselves to a place where we can help create a path forward on immigration that’s consistent with our historical commitments as a nation of immigrants and our commitment to the rule of law,” Bennet, who as part of the 2013 Gang of Eight negotiated an immigration deal that passed the Senate before collapsing in the House, told Semafor.

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Joseph’s view

There’s going to be enormous pressure on both parties to strike a deal here, given the stakes for Ukraine aid. But to pull it off, they’ll have to bridge the enormous gulf that exists between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to diagnosing the problems at the U.S.-Mexico border and how best to solve them.

“I would hope everyone can see how our asylum rules for instance are being exploited,” Lankford told Semafor. “The question now is, what do we do about that?”

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Among other changes, Senate Republicans seek to significantly curtail asylum access through two key provisions. One would require migrants who cross another country to show they were denied asylum there before they could qualify for it in the U.S. Another strips people of their right to apply for asylum unless they enter the U.S. through a designated port of entry (Currently, asylum access is provided to anyone regardless of where they cross the US border).

Those twin measures would effectively restrict asylum to people from Mexico, Canada, or those who can afford to fly directly to the United States without a layover.

“To the GOP, the problem is that we have asylum. To the Democrats, the problem is that we have an asylum system that’s not functional,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnik, policy director at the American Immigration Council, told Semafor. “So the Democratic response in the supplemental is let’s make the system work. And the GOP response is “let’s just get rid of asylum.’”

Prominent immigration advocacy groups on Wednesday laid out a set of proposals they argue should be in the mix, including bolstering funding so migrants have access to lawyers as well as more federal cash for states and cities struggling to provide social services and housing to newly-arrived migrants. They’re pushing against increasing funding for detention centers and “last minute, poorly thought-out policy changes in 11th hour budget negotiations.”

The ultimate goal for immigration organizations? “It’s making sure that at the end of the day, a system exists that is still accessible and is not limited only to a tiny handful of rich people who can fly here,” Melnick said.

Key Democrats, meanwhile, are signaling that any deal will likely have to be narrow in scope, given the time pressure. “I hope we can find some areas of agreement, but it’s naive to believe that we’re going to be doing comprehensive immigration reform in a matter of days,” Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranked Senate Democrat, told Semafor.

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Room for Disagreement

At least some Democrats are thinking big, and say that a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as kids — known as “Dreamers” — and codifying the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program should be on the table. “Those are long overdue,” Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., told reporters.

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