Advocates hold signs in support of asylum rights

Advocates hold signs in support of asylum rights at the White House in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: @interfaithimm/X)

As Border Deal Fails in Senate, Faith Groups Lead Charge for 'Just and Humane' Policy

"The cruelty at the border needs to stop," said one advocate.

As the U.S. Senate voted down a $118 billion bipartisan national security bill Wednesday, more than 800 faith groups and leaders called on lawmakers to completely reconsider legislation regarding the border and "pursue effective, fair, and compassionate alternatives" to the bill "that respect the sacred dignity of all people."

House Republican leaders had indicated that they would not support the legislation, claiming it would prolong a so-called "border catastrophe the president has created," while immigrant rights groups have warned that Democrats' decision to include severely weakened protections in the bill would be a "death sentence" for thousands of people seeking refuge in the United States.

Led by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, 662 faith leaders and 155 faith-based organizations said the federal government must consider "just and humane solutions, like those offered by our faith communities" in the coalition's "priorities for [fiscal year 2024] funding legislation."

"While we recognize the need to improve the humanitarian protection system, we firmly reject the proposed measures," said the coalition, which includes Faith in Action, Hope Border Institute, and Jewish Women International. "This legislation would exacerbate the humanitarian and operational challenges at the border, place obstacles that severely restrict the right to seek protection, undermine the right to due process in immigration proceedings, and expand immigrant detention, deportations, and the militarization of the border to unprecedented levels."

The bipartisan bill included provisions that would allow President Joe Biden to effectively shut down the border if crossings by undocumented immigrants reach a certain threshold, expand capacity to detain migrants, restrict screening standards for people claiming asylum, and expede the asylum process—making it harder for refugees to seek legal counsel.

After the bill failed, the Senate moved to take up a foreign aid package that excluded border provisions, giving lawmakers a potential opportunity to reshape a border security bill.

"The cruelty at the border needs to stop. The provisions outlined in the appropriations bill, purporting to automatically shut down the border and expel individuals seeking safety, are not only a failed attempt to secure the border but are also a catalyst for increased chaos on both the U.S. and Mexican sides," said Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute, ahead of Wednesday's first vote. "Any policy that fails to acknowledge the complex realities of migration and prioritizes enforcement over compassion is fundamentally flawed. We call on policymakers to reject these harmful provisions and instead work towards comprehensive solutions that honor our nation's commitment to human dignity and justice."

The coalition pointed to its legislative priorities that would ensure: "safety and dignity for asylum-seekers" by recognizing that refugees have a right under international and domestic law to seek safety in the U.S.; international assistance to reduce forced migration of people affected by climate catastrophe, violence, and poverty; and refugee protection.

Specific proposals from the coalition include:

  • Increasing funding and oversight of the immigration Shelter and Service Program, for which the White House requested $1.4 billion in grants for 2024;
  • Funding the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for employment authorization and other application processing, backlog reduction, and integration, for which the White House requested $755 million;
  • Sufficiently funding Customs and Border Protection to process asylum claims at ports of entry;
  • Eliminating regulatory barriers like the "180-day asylum clock" that restricts asylum-seekers from applying for work authorization;
  • Funding bilateral assistance to Latin American and Caribbean countries, the International Disaster Assistance Account, and the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Account; and
  • Funding the Office of Refugee Resettlement and its programs for unaccompanied children.

"As Congress turns to funding the federal government, now is the time for Congress to invest in refugee protection and resettlement and an asylum system that is humane and orderly," said the coalition in its statement on funding priorities last year. "The budget provides a key opportunity to make sound investments that increase collective capacity, adequately meet needs, and enhance coordination at all levels."

The coalition noted that the border deal in the bipartisan package had included some protections for families who migrate to the U.S. and permanent protections for Afghans, unaccompanied children, and Ukrainians fleeing war.

"However, exchanging protections for some immigrant populations at the expense of others would ultimately harm the very people this legislation purports to protect," wrote the groups and leaders.

Susan Krehbiel, associate for migration accompaniment ministries at Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, denounced the White House and senators for supporting a provision that would have shut down asylum services at the border once crossings by undocumented immigrants surpassed 5,000 people per day over a five-day average.

"When thousands of people come to you seeking protection from danger, the moral response is not to slam the door in their faces," said Krehbiel. "There are 110 million forcibly displaced people globally, but the leaders of one of the richest countries in the world believe that taking in 5,000 asylum-seekers per day is too many. The U.S. is failing to fulfill its responsibility to accept people seeking safety from violence and persecution."

"Policymakers need to stop pretending that asylum-seekers will just disappear if they turn a blind eye," she added. "Policies of deterrence haven't worked in the past and won't work now. We urge Congress to invest in border policies that actually work on the ground and to receive families seeking asylum with justice and kindness."

As the faith leaders called for a "fair and compassionate vision for migration management," one progressive lawmaker, Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), spoke to The Intercept's Ryan Grim about "what the progressive vision truly is when it comes to immigration policy."

"There is not the flagship, all-progressive bill here in the Congress," Casar acknowledged. "There are things that we fight for, many of which are agreed to by a vast majority of the American people, like the Dream and Promise Act to give Dreamers legal status in this country. And we have bills like the registry bill that would just change a date in immigration law, that would ultimately give legal status to millions and millions of people."

"We need a broader progressive vision that actually recognizes that the working class is not just in the United States but is across the hemisphere and one that lifts up those working-class people across the United States and Latin America," he continued. "One that says, we don't want to push people out of their home country, you should be able to have a right to stay in your home country if that's where you want to stay. You should have a right to come across the border and work and lift up your economic situation."

Ahead of the Senate vote on Wednesday, Anika Forrest, legislative director for domestic policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, said the right to asylum must not be used as "a bargaining chip for military funding."

"Any policy that fails to safeguard respite, protection, and peace for communities fleeing violence and persecution promises tragedy and turmoil," said Forrest. "U.S. political leaders insist on chaotic and cruel policies that function as impenetrable walls and abandon asylum-seekers. Migration management as well as humane, safe, and orderly processing at the border deserve effective and modern solutions."

"Neither" was accomplished by the Senate bill, she added.

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