The bipartisan Senate border security bill might already be good as dead

It really feels like the politics are just upside down, topsy turvy on this.

By Alexandra HartFebruary 6, 2024 2:31 pm, ,

This weekend the Senate unveiled a $118 billion border security bill that would include aid to Ukraine and Israel. The plan includes major changes to how asylum cases are processed and, if passed, could be one of the biggest overhauls to immigration policy in years.

But Republicans and Democrats alike are already souring on the plan – even some Senators that originally supported the measure.  

The proposal has become a centerpiece of the conversation over border security in Texas – but with its chances of passing dwindling, it remains to be seen what comes next. 

Liz Goodwin, congressional reporter for the Washington Post, spoke with Texas Standard about what the bill would do and why things went south for it so quickly. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: On this Senate bill, this would present some major changes to U.S. immigration policy, according to proponents. What exactly would it do?

Liz Goodwin: So this, bipartisan deal, if it were ever to pass, it would be one of the most dramatic things done in the immigration space in decades by Congress.

And kind of most dramatic thing it would do is really change the way asylum seekers are processed at the border. It lets authorities basically raise the standard for who can apply to asylum, which would then result in a lot more people just being turned around. It’s not even called “deported.” It’s being expelled because you’re sort of not in the country yet.

And then the other piece of it that’s pretty dramatic is that, on days when crossings are particularly high, it would automatically set in sort of an effective border shutdown between ports of entry for asylum seekers. So that’s automatic. The president doesn’t really have discretion over that. And then a president could shut the border down at an even lower threshold of 4,000 approaches per day over a few days, or about a week.

And then it has a lot of other stuff in it, too, like thousands of new asylum officers would be hired, border patrol officers, money for a fence or wall, depending on whether you’re talking to a Democrat or a Republican. So there’s a lot in there on the border. It’s really a big bill.

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Could you explain to me what’s meant by “shutting down the border”? We’re not talking about closing authorized border crossings. But isn’t that the very issue? That people are making unauthorized entry, and there’s no way to stop those unauthorized entries? How do you shut down a border once you reach one of these thresholds?

So basically, between ports of entry, the Border Patrol would have the authority to just not process people, to just send them back. So that’s not allowed right now.

So immediate deportation is what you’re talking about.

Yes. And it wouldn’t even be called “deportation” because they were never even really processed. So it’s just expelling people automatically. And then at the ports of entry, 1,400 migrants could apply for and be processed through the asylum process per day. But that’s actually way lower than your average day these days.

So it would be just a very dramatic bringing down of the numbers over that period. And then you would have to see the numbers stay a lot lower for a period of time before the emergency portion would lift.

This bill you mentioned has bipartisan support but still major headwinds in the House. In fact, House speaker Mike Johnson has called it “dead on arrival.” What are the objections to this proposal? And, presumably they’re coming from Republicans in the Republican leadership. What are they taking issue with?

So, actually, last night, the political chances for this bill have even soured in the Senate, where there was a lot more Republican buy-in to this proposal. James Lankford, of Oklahoma, had been pushing it. And then obviously the leader, Mitch McConnell, was very involved in the negotiations.

But that all sort of collapsed last night. They met behind closed doors and decided that they would most likely unify to block it when there’s a vote on Wednesday. They feel like there’s not enough time to improve the bill. But really, it feels like the border portion is close to dead.

Interesting that this bill appears to have received support from the Border Patrol Union, which is typically seen as having a conservative leaning. The union endorsed Trump for president twice. What have they had to say about this bill and why is this significant?

So the Border Patrol union, as you mentioned, a very conservative group really critical of Biden and how he’s been handling the border – incredibly critical of him. But they did come out and back this bill because they say there’s tools in this that they don’t have, and they need to be able to get the situation back under control.

I think that part of that is the way that asylum is changed, because now you just have to process people even if they’re, you know, the claims aren’t going to be granted eventually because it’s actually very hard to get actual asylum in the U.S. You have to have a very strong case that you’re being persecuted in your home country. And this would really change that and just give them a lot more tools.

And so they’re for it, and then you have immigrant rights groups saying this is very draconian. It’s very cruel to migrants. But then on the Hill, when you hear Republicans talk about it, it sounds as if it’s some kind of like amnesty or something, which it just isn’t.

So it really feels like the politics are just upside down, topsy turvy on this, and it feels like it’s going to die. And that’ll just sort of be the end of it. It’s been weird to watch, honestly.

Well, now a part of this bill goes beyond the border. We’re talking about an $118 billion package which includes money for Ukraine and Israel. Tell us more about that aspect. And I wonder how that factors into support or opposition for this bill.

Yeah. So the whole reason we went down this journey of trying to come up with all this border stuff is because House Republicans, and some Senate Republicans as well, felt like we don’t want to give more money to Ukraine unless we solve our border problem first, essentially.

So someone like Mitch McConnell, who feels very personally strongly that Ukraine needs to be funded as they fight off a Russian invasion, he was really motivated to get this deal honestly because of that Ukraine piece that’s become very controversial in the Republican Party over the past year or two. And in a weird way, it almost feels like there’s a chance for the Ukraine money and the Israel money to kind of rise from the ashes after border seems like it’s headed for dead, because it feels like all the political heat got transferred to this border deal.

President Trump’s been talking about it nonstop, says it’s a horrible deal. And it almost gives those Republicans who do want to fund Ukraine an opportunity to push that and say, “okay, well, this is the piñata. Dump this border stuff, but let’s just send money to our allies who really need it right now.”

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As the bill currently stands, you do not sound optimistic that it will pass. Is there any real chance of this passing? Is there something that could be tweaked in this bill that would make it more palatable for Senate and House Republicans? I mean, already we’re talking about a bill that is a bipartisan package.

Yeah. And, you know, that’s something they were discussing last night, the Senate Republicans in their meeting. “Is there a ways we could amend this bill and fix the problems with it?”

But honestly, no one’s really explaining what they would want this to be. And it feels a little bit like political posturing to me. It doesn’t feel to me like they want some other bill. It feels to me like in an election year, on a topic that is the most motivating topic for their base, they just don’t want to mess with this right now. It just feels toxic.

So that’s why I’m not hopeful for something coming out of this, because the vibes were just that people wanted to run away from this issue entirely. And I feel like James Lankford ended up being like the sacrificial lamb for this kind of doomed political exercise, essentially.

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