Christmas on Capitol Hill: Ukraine and the border will have to wait until next year

The House of Representatives and the Senate close for vacation without reaching an agreement on two connected issues: Republicans refuse to send aid to Kiev without guarantees of a tougher crackdown on the migrant crisis

Chuck Schumer
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to reporters Nov. 19 at the U.S. Capitol.ELIZABETH FRANTZ (REUTERS)

Members of the House of Representatives and Senate have gone home for Christmas. Back on Capitol Hill, two of Washington’s most pressing issues have been put on hold until 2024: adopting measures to deal with the migration crisis and providing aid to Ukraine for its defense against Russian aggression.

The House of Representatives adjourned on December 14. The Senate—with the absence of senators who preferred to take off earlier—extended its working days until December 20, reflecting the hopes of both parties’ leaders, Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Mitch McConnell, to close a deal in extremis. That did not happen. Moreover, the two issues are linked: Republicans do not want to give aid to Kiev if they do not receive a commitment to increase border control in return.

President Joe Biden has proposed a $110 billion (€100 billion) package of military assistance for Ukraine and Israel, amid Pentagon warnings that its funds for that purpose are drying up as Russian troops advance on the eastern front. Meanwhile, on Friday Biden signed an executive order that threatens sanctions against foreign financial institutions helping Moscow evade sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. The order also gives Washington the ability to extend import bans on certain products, such as seafood and diamonds. In addition, according to The New York Times, the Biden administration is working to seize over $300 billion in Russian central bank assets hidden in Western financial institutions to be used to support Ukraine’s war efforts.

Negotiations over both issues continued in the Senate until last Wednesday. Schumer called the talks promising, but they were not promising enough to offer the American people a show of compromise between the two parties. That same week, images of thousands of people waiting outside to be processed by immigration agents in Eagle Pass, Texas, returned to newspapers’ front pages. At the same time, Greg Abbott, the tough-talking governor of Texas (the state with the country’s toughest laws), began sending migrants on flights to cities like Chicago in a new twist on his program of expelling them aboard buses bound for Democratic strongholds like Washington and New York.

Agentes de la patrulla fronteriza
Two Border Patrol agents guard a group of migrants who recently arrived in Texas from Honduras.CHENEY ORR (REUTERS)

Perhaps Schumer was naïve to believe that some extra time would allow him to convince his opponents on one of the most pressing issues facing the Americas. Amidst the primaries to nominate their candidate for the November elections, Republicans know that immigration is one of their best weapons against Biden, the Democratic candidate, in the election year that is just beginning.

Trump’s rhetoric

Recent days have also been noteworthy for the rhetoric of Donald Trump, by far the leading candidate to be the president’s challenger, according to the polls. At a rally in New Hampshire, one of the first states to vote in the primaries, Trump raised the level of his anti-immigration rhetoric (if possible), promising “the largest deportation of undocumented immigrants in history” if he returns to the White House. He also said that immigrants coming to the United States “poison the blood of the country,” a phrase that earned him criticism for echoing Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf. The former president later said that he had not read the Führer, but he has continued to talk about immigrants poisoning the blood of the United States.

Joe Biden y Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymir Zelenski and Joe Biden appear at a press conference, during the Ukrainian president's recent visit to the White House on December 12, 2021. MICHAEL REYNOLDS (EFE)

Trump employs such rhetoric knowing that there is discontent beyond the extreme left and right. According to a recent polling average by Real Clear Politics, 62 percent of Americans disapprove of his administration’s handling of the issue. Fiscal year 2023 (which runs through September, from the previous October) left over 3.2 million “encounters,” a euphemism that refers to immigrant apprehensions by Border Patrol agents. That number shattered all previous years’ records, including 2022, which also broke the record with 2.7 million apprehensions.

The Biden administration has taken a rightward turn on the issue, which became clear in October, when the president gave the green light to strengthen the border wall, despite being elected president with the promise to abandon one of Trump’s signature projects. In early December, Biden announced that he was willing to “make significant compromises” on his border policy to unblock aid to Ukraine.

In negotiations led by Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s Secretary of Homeland Security, the White House has been willing to modify important pillars of immigration policy, including asylum. The administration offered to limit granting asylum status to 5,000 people per day. This week, the number reached 10,000. Most of those who arrive at the border are granted asylum, which allows them to live in the country while an immigration judge considers their case, a process that can take several years because of the overburdened system. Republicans propose strengthening the requirements for immigrants to stay at the end of a process that begins with an interview to prove the “credible danger” of returning to their countries. Those who fail this test would be returned immediately. The possibility of equipping applicants with a GPS like those used in house arrests is also under consideration.

Republicans also want the administration to significantly reduce the number of humanitarian visas it grants. That has been one of Biden’s pet programs; it has allowed the entry of 270,000 people (as of last October). In particular, the administration has favored Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, although the figure includes Ukrainians who left their country after the Russian invasion as well.

Expedited deportation of those who have been in the country for less than two years and have not applied for asylum, regardless of where they are in the United States, is also on the table. The administrations of Donald Trump and Barack Obama (who holds the record for deportations in the country’s modern history) widely used expedited removals.

Human rights organizations warn about the possible implications of the negotiations, which will resume in 2024. “Any anti-immigrant concession is unacceptable and a betrayal of our values as a country,” the NGO Al Otro Lado said. “We are entering an election year, and the president will begin to seek the support of the groups that formed his coalition to win in 2020, including Latinos. If these immigration measures are signed into law, there really won’t be any difference from Trump’s anti-immigrant policies,” explained Maribel Hastings and David Torres, of America’s Voice, another organization that defends undocumented immigrants.

Civil society isn’t the only source of criticism. Senator Alex Padilla, the only Latino ever to hold that position in California, has warned his party that giving in to the Republicans’ demands could be catastrophic in 2024. According to the AP, the legislator (who has not been involved in the discussions), has complained to White House negotiators that the new proposal does not include pathways to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, one of Biden’s first promises when he came to power. At a Los Angeles fundraiser for Biden’s re-election, the senator told the president to be careful of being dragged into supporting “harmful policies” by the opposition’s radical right-wing.

We will have to wait until next year, when Capitol Hill returns to work after the Christmas recess, to find out whether or not the president and the Democratic party will listen to Padilla.

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