‘The border is not a bargaining chip:' Human rights groups condemn effort to tie immigration to foreign aid
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Editor's note: This story was updated on Tuesday Dec. 26th at 4:40pm CST to differentiate between total CBP encounter numbers and CBP encounter numbers between ports of entry.
Human rights groups condemned Senate Republicans and the Biden administration after reports that a discussion on a supplemental funding bill to provide aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan put asylum and other humanitarian pathways for migrants on the table as part of negotiations.
"The border is not a bargaining chip,” said Ricky Garza, Border Policy Counsel for the Southern Border Communities Coalition. “Congress and the White House must respect the human right to seek asylum and refuse to negotiate away the rights of border communities for military aid. Anything less is unconscionable.”
Biden’s supplemental funding bill was blocked last week by Senate Republicans, who are demanding the bill include stringent immigration policies from legislation first passed by the house in May as H.R. 2 — or the "Secure the Border Act of 2023.”
After last week’s vote, news outlets reported that the White House is open to conceding on some policies first proposed in H.R. 2 for the first time since they were put forward, including new limits on asylum and refugee programs in the U.S.
Human rights groups immediately condemned any potential compromises from the Biden administration that would begin to dismantle humanitarian pathways for migrants to the U.S.
The money that funds Ukraine in its defense of Russia's invasion runs out at the end of the year, and Biden has until the end of the week — when Congress adjourns — to strike a deal. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a television interview on Sunday that Biden is “fully prepared to engage” with Republicans to make significant changes to the bill in order to avoid putting critical funding on hold for several weeks or longer, and possibly shifting the balance of the war towards Russia.
But it’s not yet clear which of the Republicans’ proposed immigration measures could make it to a final bill that both parties would agree on, if any. Members of both the House and Senate expressed doubt about bringing enough Democrats on board with any of the current Republican proposals.
Amy Fischer, director of Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement that one of the proposals that raises the standard for credible fear in asylum screenings would make it more difficult for those most in need of help to obtain protections.
“Asylum seekers are often at their most vulnerable during their credible fear process, and a change of the standard would not screen out frivolous claims, but rather punish the most vulnerable, the most traumatized, and the most unable of articulating their claims,” she said. “Credible fear interviews frequently happen while individuals are detained and unrepresented by counsel.”
Other measures proposed by Republicans have included a cap on asylum, a “transit ban” that would require asylum seekers to first apply in other countries, and a widened use of GPS ankle bracelets that would include tracking children.
At the more extreme end, Republicans have proposed new powers for nationwide expedited removal that would allow federal agencies to deport families in the interior of the country without any legal process, an expansion of detention that could include children, and an executive authority to completely shut down border entries for a wide range of reasons at any time.
“My reaction is one of deep shock that the president is willing to revert to Trump policies that would see us targeting immigrant communities across the whole country,” said Robyn Barnard, director of refugee advocacy for Human Rights First and an immigration attorney.
“All of the proposals that are being bandied about do nothing to stop people from coming,” Barnard added. “All this is going to do is punish those who are seeking protection and it's going to punish communities that are already here.”
Migrants seeking asylum currently represent a fraction of the total migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border.
For example, of the 240,988 total migrant encounters by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) at the U.S.-Mexico border in October, only 46,230 individuals, about 19% of all encounters, were released with a notice to appear in court for an asylum hearing.
Barnard also explained that the Biden administration already placed temporary limitations on asylum in May, including raising the credible fear standard, the transit ban, and a requirement for migrants to set appointments for asylum screenings via an app from outside the country.
“So what the Biden administration has been doing since the end of Title 42, the asylum ban they have in place, is done through regulation,” Barnard said. “Congress would now [through this deal with Biden] be codifying and putting that asylum ban into our laws and saying that this is now a part of our immigration system.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said at the time that it expected a reduction in migrant arrivals between ports of entry at the border as a result of those temporary measures that began in May.
A reduction in the absolute number of encounters between ports of entry was seen in August, October, and November compared with 2022.
However, DHS saw the total number of migrants entering the country increase month-over-month beginning in July, including asylum screening appointments at land ports like Eagle Pass and El Paso. Since August, the border has seen a record number of total encounters each month across all categories.
“[These measures] are going to do nothing at the end of the day to solve any of the problems that Democrats, the president, or Republicans are saying they want to fix in terms of the number of people coming over, the backlogs, and processing,” Barnard explained. “It's just going to cause more chaos and more harm.”
According to a border enforcement report in October by the House Judiciary Committee, the Biden administration has already deported a higher percentage of border crossers and released a smaller percentage of migrants into the U.S. than Trump did in a comparable two-year period.
However, even though the administration is removing 3.5 times as many people per month as the Trump administration, arrivals during the current administration have increased dramatically in absolute numbers.
During its last two years, the Trump administration dealt with just over 1.2 million arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border. In its first two years, the Biden administration has seen more than 5 million people.
Jon Taylor, professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the causes of migration are more complex than can be addressed in a quick deal.
“Bottom line, neither political party has done a good job addressing the immigration issue. In particular, the long term consequences of what's happening, not just on the border, but other countries like Venezuela, among others. Why they are coming to the United States. Why they are fleeing their home countries,” he said.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Latin America and the Caribbean are now the second-most disaster-prone regions in the world. They face an unprecedented multidimensional crisis, with more than 29.2 million people in need across the region in 2023.
Climate shocks precipitated by the warming global weather pattern known as “La Niña,” which persisted for three years for the first time since 2001, included droughts, flooding, and severe hurricanes. The phenomenon destroyed infrastructure, agriculture and livelihoods, disproportionately affecting the poor and increasing food insecurity for years to come.
Households and governments are still struggling to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic at the same time as the conflict in Ukraine continues to push food and fuel prices up dramatically.
Poverty and inequality have significantly deepened in the region. In turn, all of these factors have exacerbated socioeconomic challenges, such as gender-based violence, homicide rates, democratic instability, and widespread gang violence.
UNOCHA reported that the flow of irregular migration, not just to the U.S., but across the Americas has grown exponentially through 2023 due to these challenges. That growth in human movement is expected to keep increasing.
“People are desperately traveling across the jungles of South America into southern Mexico up to the U.S. border. This is a humanitarian disaster,” Taylor said. “And neither party right now seems to have the political will to sit down and come up with some sort of comprehensive immigration plan. Why? Because it seems to be better to posture, better to play politics. In turn, you're seeing a number of people who are suffering because of it.”
The Associated Press reported on Friday that Senate Republicans doubled down on extreme immigration measures as a result of Biden expressing willingness to compromise, even reviving demands that had already been set aside in earlier negotiations.
Democratic State Sen. Roland Gutierrez is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who originally introduced the Senate version of H.R. 2.
Cruz has been one of the most vocal supporters of using the supplemental funding bill to force through Republican border policies.
“We've got to get rid of people that only yell and scream about the border and say that we need more and more border walls, more obstacles,” Gutierrez said.
“A hungry person that makes $300 a month from Venezuela is going to come to the land of opportunity. There's 30 million jobs in this country that Americans do not want to work in. But we've allowed Republicans to make this the boogeyman, as if the immigrants were responsible for every health care failure and education failure and infrastructure failure,” he added.
Gutierrez, who is running on a five-point immigration plan that includes letting migrants apply for U.S. jobs directly from a foreign country before being vetted and letting employers foot the bill to bring in those workers, says immigration reform should be much simpler.
“There's not any one president that can be blamed for what's happening on our border today. It's simply an economic outcry for opportunity," he said. "This isn't about who can catch more and who can release more. This is about solving an economic problem.”