It was a decade ago that Capitol Hill was consumed by an urgency to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, fueled in no small part by Republicans who felt a political imperative to make inroads with minority voters by embracing more generous policies.
But nothing ever became law, and in the time since, Washington’s center of gravity on immigration has shifted demonstrably to the right, with the debate now focused on measures meant to keep migrants out as Republicans sense they have the political upper hand.
Long gone are the chatter and horse-trading between parties over how to secure a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, or a modernized work permit system to encourage more legal migration. Instead, the fights of late have centered on how much to tighten asylum laws and restrain a president’s traditional powers to protect certain groups of migrants.
Now, Democrats and Republicans are again struggling to strike an immigration deal — and the consequences of failure stretch far beyond the southern border. Congressional Republicans are insisting on tougher border measures as their price for greenlighting billions in additional aid to Ukraine, and the stalemate is putting the future of U.S. military assistance to Kyiv at risk as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears the two-year mark.
Democrats have “ceded the ground to Republicans on immigration and the border,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights. “The administration seems to see no advantage in leading on this issue, but I think that they’re shooting themselves in the foot.”
The intractable nature of immigration debates is coming into sharp relief this week as a bipartisan group of senators tasked with finding a border deal is running out of time to reach an agreement. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has promised to put up for a vote a nearly $106 billion emergency spending request from Biden to cover national security needs including Ukraine, Israel and the border. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, is an unwavering backer of Ukraine yet has stressed privately to President Joe Biden that the administration will need to bend on border policy to unlock that money.
In remarks at the White House on Wednesday, Biden made it clear that he was prepared to agree to at least some of the changes Republicans are seeking.
“I am willing to make significant compromises on the border,” he said. “We need to fix the broken border system. It is broken.”
Behind closed doors, Democrats have resisted demands from Republicans to scale back Biden’s executive powers to temporarily admit certain migrants into the country. Yet Democrats privately appear willing to concede to GOP negotiators in other areas, particularly on making it tougher for asylum-seekers to clear an initial bar before their legal proceedings can continue in the United States.
That’s a shift in favor of Republicans from even last year: There were similar agreements around asylum among Senate negotiators back then, but that would have been in exchange for a conditional pathway to citizenship for roughly 2 million “Dreamers” who came to the United States illegally as children.
Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, a perennial negotiator on immigration, stressed that in “every Congress, the foundation for compromise changes.”
“The Democrats have to understand we lead one of the two chambers on Capitol Hill,” Tillis said. “They have to understand that we rightfully will get something more conservative than some of the deals that are negotiated in the last Congress.”
Throughout the Senate border negotiations, the White House has remained visibly hands off, largely trying to replicate its strategy on previously successful legislative talks like those that eventually led to tougher gun restrictions becoming law.
But it’s also no secret the border is one issue Biden would prefer to avoid.
Though Biden as vice president spearheaded the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts in Central America, the border specifically is one of the few issues that he did not manage during his 36 years in the Senate nor two terms as vice president.
As president, Biden’s aim has been to adopt a foreign policy approach to the border, framing the issue as a hemispheric challenge, not solely a U.S. problem. Biden almost immediately after taking office unraveled some of former President Donald Trump’s more hardline policies. And last year, he oversaw the end of Title 42, the pandemic-era health restrictions at the border that had made it easier to deny migrants entry into the U.S.
He has tried to broaden legal pathways while cracking down on illegal border crossings. But the number of migrants at the border, after an initial dip following the end of Title 42, has been climbing dramatically. Now, cities like Chicago, New York and Denver are struggling to manage the migrants who have been relocated to their cities, forcing Democrats in areas far north to confront similar challenges to those long faced by border states.
Inside the White House, deputy chief of staff Natalie Quillian — tapped initially to oversee implementation of Biden’s signature laws, like the massive infrastructure package that just turned two years old — is now coordinating the administration’s response to Democratic-led cities and states that have asked for help managing the influx of migrants.
“There is a fundamental shift in the Democratic Party on immigration” that has happened within the past six months, as the number of migrants in those cities has swelled, said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow and director of the Migration Policy Institute office at New York University’s law school.
Before, Democrats would bristle at any potential discussion over the border, particularly following Trump. But Chishti added: “That’s no longer true. Their backs don’t go up when they see someone saying we want to make some changes in the policies at the border.”
Aides and allies to Biden have said the president is willing to accept new restrictions on asylum and potentially other Republican-led immigration policy changes, particularly as the numbers at the border continue to rise. His supplemental funding request, which seeks $14 billion for the border, would hire more asylum officers, increase detention capacity for migrant families and hire more immigration court judges.
There’s now a backlog of more than 1 million cases, and it’s only increasing. Some migrants are released into the U.S. and wait for years before they are told whether they qualify for asylum.
Arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border in August through October more than doubled over the previous three months as migrants and smugglers adjusted to new asylum regulations following the end of Title 42. Illegal border crossings were at 188,778 in October, down from 218,763 in September, which was the second-highest month on record.
The White House decision to lump additional funding for the border in with Ukraine assistance has given lawmakers, Republicans say, an implicit nod to negotiate policy changes that would otherwise make Democrats feel uncomfortable.
“The fact that they are trying to actually work and figure out what we can do to come up with border security tells me he understands the American people are getting fed up with their current posture,” Tillis said of Biden and the White House.
Bolstering the GOP posture even further is a new House Republican majority that is largely resistant to continued Ukraine assistance, making the price of additional aid for the White House that much higher.
And unlike gun talks last year — when Democrats wielded political advantage after mass shootings galvanized public calls for increased restrictions — immigration is largely seen as an issue that is being fought on Republicans’ turf.
But in the Democrats’ view, Trump and his hardline immigration policies, coupled with antipathy toward Ukraine aid, continue to loom large, rendering Republicans unable to close any deal that would involve irking portion of their base that remain staunchly opposed to Ukraine aid and anything less than the hardline policies they’ve already laid out.
Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, one of the chief authors of the 2013 immigration bill that never became law, said the U.S. immigration system, writ large, still needs an overhaul.
But “we can’t do that right now in the context of this Ukraine bill,” he said. “It’s too complicated. It’s too far reaching. And frankly, there’s no reason to be attaching the border to Ukraine funding.”
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