Migrants in Eagle Pass, Texas

Migrants, including children, walk next to razor wire after crossing the Rio Grande to seek humanitarian asylum in Eagle Pass, Texas on February 4, 2024.

(Photo: Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu via Getty Images)

'A Death Sentence for Many': Rights Groups Implore Congress to Reject Border Deal

"If this bill passes, it will mark a complete abdication of the United States' legal and moral commitments to refugees," said one advocacy organization.

Immigrant rights groups are urging Congress to reject bipartisan Senate legislation released Sunday that would severely weaken asylum protections, expand migrant detention capacity, and give the president the authority to effectively shut down U.S.-Mexico border crossings under certain conditions—power that President Joe Biden vowed to use immediately if the bill reaches his desk.

Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, said lawmakers must ensure it never does, warning that the bill's enactment "would eviscerate longstanding asylum protections" and institute "variations of Stephen Miller's playbook"—a reference to the xenophobic White House adviser to former president Donald Trump.

"Deportation without due process was the Trump administration's disastrous experiment which should never be repeated, let alone used as a model for permanent border policy," said Romero. "This deal would force the government to summarily expel people from the border without due process, restricting legal pathways for the people who need them most."

"Eliminating longstanding, core due process protections like court review of asylum cases and doubling down on harmful deterrence and detention policies are not going to get cities and states the support they need, nor are they a substitute for policies that would improve border management and address the immigration case backlog," he added. "This deal also fails to deliver on years of promises to enact reforms providing pathways to citizenship for Dreamers and other longtime residents."

As The Washington Postnoted, the past several months of border-related talks "have been unusual, given that past efforts at bipartisan immigration reform included discussions of providing pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living in the country demanded by Democrats, in addition to tightening border restrictions."

A pathway to citizenship was never on the table during negotiations over the new package. Instead, as The Intercept's Ryan Grim pointed out, Senate Democrats granted some of the GOP's anti-immigrant demands in exchange for military aid for Ukraine.

The 370-page bill includes more than $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine and around $14 billion for Israel.

Immigration policy analyst Adam Isacson observed in a brief analysis of the legislation that it includes "a lot of the controversial limits on access to asylum that had already been reported in media."

The bill, he observed, would require asylum seekers placed in the "expedited removal" process to "meet a much higher standard of 'credible fear' in screening interviews with asylum officers," raising the possibility that many people would be sent back into life-threatening circumstances.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the bill's lead GOP negotiator, called the measure's asylum changes "dramatic."

The new bill would also "allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to impose a Title 42-like expulsion authority, 'summarily removing' asylum seekers from the United States (except for hard-to-prove Convention Against Torture appeals), when unauthorized migrant encounters reach a daily threshold," Isacson added.

In addition to the new discretionary authority, the bill would require DHS to mostly shut down the asylum process if an average of 5,000 people or more reach the southern border per day over a seven-day period.

"While Donald Trump abhorrently says, 'Immigrants are poisoning the blood of our country,' congressional Republicans continue to openly admit they'd prefer the politics of a broken immigration system to a functional, just process."

Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center, said in a statement that the legislation "is not worth the incredible price it would exact—more families separated, more children detained, and more people sent back to face persecution, torture, and even death."

"Instead of enacting draconian policies that create more chaos," Matos continued, "we urge the White House and Senate Democrats to change course, reject this framework, and recommit to building an orderly, humane, and functioning immigration system."

The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) similarly implored members of Congress to oppose the agreement, calling it "a shameful attempt at political posturing that treats refugees' lives as expendable."

"If this bill passes, it will mark a complete abdication of the United States' legal and moral commitments to refugees and a stunning betrayal of President Biden's promise to restore our 'historic role as a safe haven' for those escaping persecution," said CGRS legal director Blaine Bookey. "It will amount to a death sentence for many people seeking refuge in the United States. We implore the Biden administration to reverse course, and we urge lawmakers to oppose this deal."

The legislation also faced immediate backlash from progressive lawmakers.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the roughly 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the bill "includes poison pill provisions such as new Title 42-like expulsion authority that will close the border and turn away asylum seekers without due process, a boon to cartels who prey on migrants."

"While Donald Trump abhorrently says, 'Immigrants are poisoning the blood of our country,' congressional Republicans continue to openly admit they'd prefer the politics of a broken immigration system to a functional, just process," Jayapal continued. "Democrats have given in to these extremist views over and over again for 30 years. By refusing to make the structural changes in the Senate needed to pass true reforms, allowing MAGA Republicans to lie to the American public, and declining to stand up and defend immigrant communities, it appears that President Biden and Senate Democrats have fallen into the same trap again."

While the White House and top Republican and Democratic senators have lined up behind the bill, its prospects remain highly uncertain in both the upper chamber and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. In a social media post late Sunday, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) said the bill is "dead on arrival" if it reaches the lower chamber.

Even if the bill ultimately doesn't become law, observers warned that the Senate deal could do lasting damage to efforts to create a humane immigration system.

"I think the House Republicans mean what they say on not passing this border bill, but this is the end of comprehensive immigration reform because Democrats just showed that they don't need a path to citizenship to make a deal," wroteThe American Prospect's David Dayen.

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