‘Political games’: Advocates vow to fight US border policy standoff

Asylum rights groups warn against kowtowing to Republican effort to condition Ukraine aid on greater restrictions.

Asylum rights
US Senator Senator Alex Padilla speaks at an asylum rights rally in Washington, DC [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Washington, DC – Military aid for Ukraine in exchange for stricter migration and asylum policies: That is the gambit put forward by Republicans in the United States Congress as they negotiate with Democrats over government spending.

But the prospect of tighter border restrictions has prompted concern among advocates, particularly as some leading Democrats seem poised to compromise.

On Tuesday, demonstrators from dozens of advocacy groups gathered near the US Capitol for a “Save Asylum” campaign, where they appealed to lawmakers not to sacrifice asylum protections as part of any spending deal.

“We are here today demanding, lifting our voice, and continuing the fight to ensure that a couple of senators do not implement behind closed doors things [that] will affect our community,” said Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, an organiser with the national immigration group CASA.

“We are going to lift our voices united to ensure that they do not look at us as just statistics to play political games,” she continued. “Real lives are on the line.”

Top Democrats and the White House have already signalled they are willing to make concessions on immigration in return for a long-sought $110bn aid package. That deal would include military aid for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan, as well as other security spending.

Talks between Republican and Democratic senators, however, failed to reach a breakthrough before Congress adjourned last year for its holiday break.

US asylum
Asylum advocates rally in Washington, DC, amid fears of increased restrictions at the US border [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

With legislators returning to work this week, asylum rights supporters have vowed a flurry of advocacy work to bring awareness to the ongoing negotiations — and the stakes they entail.

Tuesday’s event, held in Washington’s Reformation Lutheran Church, brought together 200 demonstrators, some of whom held signs that read “Save asylum” and “Don’t deport our families”.

“Senator Schumer, we see you, but it appears you do not see us,” Murad Awawdeh of the New York Immigration Council said, speaking as if to Senate majority leader himself.

“Do good by us, or we will be holding you and everyone else accountable,” he added.

‘Trump border plan, plain and simple’

Addressing the crowd on Tuesday, Senator Alex Padilla, a Democrat from California, acknowledged that there has not yet been “anything in writing” in terms of official proposals from the negotiations.

Still, he added, what was emerging from the closed-door discussions had given him cause for alarm.

“Republicans in Congress are seeking to double down on the failed Trump policies,” he said, referencing former Republican President Donald Trump. “What this deal is sounding like is a page out of the Trump border plan, plain and simple.”

The Associated Press (AP) news agency, citing people familiar with the negotiations, reported that humanitarian parole was a sticking point in the bipartisan meetings. Humanitarian parole is a mechanism that allows US Citizenship and Immigration Services to grant temporary legal admission to the US.

In 2023, the White House announced it would expand its humanitarian parole programme to accept up to 30,000 applicants per month from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti.

That plan was part of a wider strategy the Biden administration said would increase legal pathways to enter the US, while strengthening penalties for irregular crossings at the southern border.

But while the Biden administration initially saw a decline in irregular border crossings after the announcement, the overall number has since shot upwards.

The US Customs and Border Protection agency documented a record 2,475,669 irregular “encounters” for its 2023 fiscal year, and officials in communities like Eagle Pass, Texas, reported struggling to accommodate the influx of arrivals.

Republican officials, as well as some Democrats, have used the heightened numbers to push the federal government for more action.

Congressional negotiators reportedly agreed to make asylum interviews more restrictive and allow authorities to quickly expel those crossing the border without humanitarian screenings in periods of increased crossings.

However, they have not been able to agree on the number of crossings that would trigger such a policy, according to the AP.

The news agency previously reported that other proposals included making it easier to deport migrants who have been in the US for fewer than two years, even if they reside far from the border, and detaining and electronically monitoring families crossing the border. Both tactics, critics fear, would represent a return to hardline Trump-era practices.

Speaking at the rally on Tuesday, advocates and elected officials warned the situation was particularly dire because the strict measures Congress members were weighing could end up codified in law. That would make them harder to challenge than policies solely put in place by the executive branch.

Senator Mazie Hirono said Republicans were holding aid to the US allies “hostage” to demand “negative, really bad changes that they want to make to the immigration system”.

“And my concern is that they are really setting the stage for getting what they want,” she said.

‘Asylum saves lives’

The presidential and congressional elections in November loom large over the immigration fight in Congress.

Recently, Republicans in the House of Representatives launched impeachment proceedings against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, accusing him of failing to enforce laws at the border.

Speaking in Texas this week, Mayorkas defended his record. From June to July of last year, he said his agency “removed or returned more noncitizens without a basis to remain in the United States than any other five-month period in the last 10 years”.

But while Republicans and some Democrats want stricter border restrictions, some politicians — particularly on the left — are wary of more heavy-handed policies.

Biden has already faced criticism from within his own Democratic Party for a raft of measures meant to curb southern border crossings by limiting those eligible to make asylum claims.

One rule broadly disqualified people from seeking asylum in the US if they crossed through a third country where they could seek asylum or otherwise “circumvent available, established pathways to lawful migration”.

Migrants are taken into custody by officials at the Texas-Mexico border, Wednesday, Jan. 3
Asylum seekers are taken into custody by officials at the Texas-Mexico border [File: Eric Gay/The Associated Press]

Refugee rights advocates have dubbed the policy an “asylum ban”, saying the Biden administration has fallen short of its campaign pledge to enact more “humane” border policies. The policy is being challenged in court.

Speaking at the rally on Tuesday, progressive Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said the president remains accountable to the people who helped elect him in 2020.

“That’s why I say reciprocity,” Pressley said. She called on Biden to not only advance policies that frame “immigrants’ rights as human rights” but to also “push back against any harmful proposals that deny families the compassion, dignity and fairness they deserve”.

Taking the microphone, Andres Garcias, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, promised that his advocacy would not stop.

“I fled violence and discrimination for being a gay man,” he said. “I am living proof asylum saves lives.”

Source: Al Jazeera