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Trump maintains illegal immigration as the focus of his campaign against Biden

Republicans have again rejected a bipartisan border security bill in the Senate to continue using the issue as an electoral gambit

Migrants in Jacumba (California) after crossing the border from Mexico, on May 15.
Migrants in Jacumba (California) after crossing the border from Mexico, on May 15.Adrees Latif (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

Illegal immigration is one of the issues that most concerns Americans. It has also become the flagship of Donald Trump’s campaign to return to the White House. The former president successfully used immigration as the centerpiece of his campaign in 2016, but after the record border crossings registered during Joe Biden’s tenure, he has doubled down on his bet. While Trump maintains his xenophobic and authoritarian rhetoric, Senate Republicans last week rejected a bill to reinforce the border for the second time. Less than six months before the presidential election, they prefer to ride on the back of the problem than to put forward means to solve it.

In February, the Democrats reached an agreement with a section of Republican senators to bring forward a package of some $20 billion to tackle illegal immigration. At the time it was tied to aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan and, in fact, the border package had been a Republican demand. However, before it was voted on, Trump moved to have it boycotted. Although Democrats have control of the Senate, a strengthened majority is needed in a procedural vote to approve the vast majority of legislation. Without Republican votes, the bill was shelved.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer decided to push back last week, not so much because he was hopeful of a change of heart from Republicans, but because of how Republicans would be portrayed in view of their reticence. “We gave Republicans a second chance to show where they stand,” Schumer said after the failed vote. “Do they want to fix this so-called emergency, or do they want to show blind allegiance to the former president, even when they know he’s wrong?”

In last Thursday’s vote, a majority of Senate Democrats again supported a procedural vote to begin debate on the bipartisan border security bill but the Republican bloc — with the exception of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski — voted against it. “We’re nearing the end of President Biden’s term. And the American people’s patience for his failure to secure our southern border is running thin,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday.

The president responded via a statement: “Congressional Republicans do not care about securing the border or fixing America’s broken immigration system. If they did, they would have voted for the toughest border enforcement in history. Instead, today, they put partisan politics ahead of our country’s national security,” Biden said. “By blocking the bipartisan border agreement, Republicans in Congress said no to legislation that would hire more Border Patrol Agents, add more immigration judges and asylum officers to process cases in months and not years. They said no to new technology to detect and stop fentanyl from entering the United States, and no to resources to go after drug traffickers. They rejected an agreement that would give me, as President, a new emergency authority to temporarily shut down the border when the system is overwhelmed,” he added.

The bill would have allocated more than $20 billion to staff and equip immigration and border services. It included funds for border patrols, asylum officers, immigration judges, and reception facilities. In addition, it introduced a legal amendment that would have allowed Biden to authorize “hot returns” — suspending asylum rules when certain thresholds in inflows are exceeded. The legislation allows immigrants to apply for asylum regardless of how they arrive, and they arrive in such numbers that they overwhelm the capacity of an underfunded immigration system. This effectively allows immigrants to settle while their cases are delayed for years. The law would have triggered the immediate repatriation of migrants when the daily average of 4,000 illegal crossings for a week was exceeded.

The Biden administration has introduced some changes to the asylum system to speed up the processing and possible removal of migrants. In addition, it is analyzing the possibility of approving a decree including measures to make the passage of immigrants more difficult, or to facilitate their expulsion. Among the measures being considering is invoking powers under Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which gives the president broad leeway to block certain immigrants if their entry is considered “detrimental” to national interest.

Trump repeatedly resorted to that rule during his presidency, including to impose his controversial ban on the entry of travelers from Muslim-majority countries, which Biden repealed immediately after taking office. The Biden administration is analyzing whether that provision can be enforced above a certain number of illegal crossings, in line with the provision that was included in the proposed law. But if the law is not changed, any decree against border crossings can be challenged in court.

The former president promises much tougher measures at his campaign rallies and in interviews he has given. He refers to immigrants as “criminals” and “terrorists” and has promised mass deportations, even using the military if necessary. In a recent interview with Time magazine, when asked if he would be willing to bypass the law that prohibits using the military against civilians, he replied: “Well, these aren’t civilians. These are people that aren’t legally in our country. This is an invasion of our country. An invasion like probably no country has ever seen before. They’re coming in by the millions. I believe we have 15 million now. And I think you’ll have 20 million by the time this ends.” At some of his rallies, Trump has even gone so far as to say that undocumented immigrants “can’t be called people.”

When asked again if he saw himself using the military to carry out mass deportations, he replied: “I can see myself using the National Guard and, if necessary, I’d have to go a step further. We have to do whatever we have to do to stop the problem we have [...] you have to do what you have to do to stop crime and to stop what’s taking place at the border.” In that same interview he refused to rule out setting up detention camps for immigrants. “We wouldn’t have to do very much of that,” he said. “Because we’ll be bringing them out of the country. We’re not leaving them in the country. We’re bringing them out. It’s been done before.”

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