Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.
House Republicans passed an aggressive but symbolic border security and immigration package Thursday following months of negotiations and a series of last-minute obstacles.
The legislation would ensure fewer people could claim asylum in the US, restart border wall construction, and lock more migrants in detention facilities. The House vote was 219-213, with all Democrats in opposition and only two Republican defections: Reps. Thomas Massie (Ky.) and John Duarte (Calif.).
The bill’s passage comes on the same day the US ends the pandemic-era border restriction, Title 42, and the Biden administration struggles to manage an increase in migrant arrivals.
“We’re here today because of the abject failure of the administration to do its fundamental duty to protect the United States,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), recalling migrants who died while trying to cross the border.
“Republicans are leading,” he said Thursday. “We are doing the job the president refuses to do.”
The legislation (H.R. 2) is dead on arrival in the Senate, and President Joe Biden said he would veto it if it reached his desk. Still, it’s a powerful message from Republicans, who’ve spent years hammering Democrats on border security and are poised to play up the issue in 2024 campaigns. The dearth of Democratic support also highlights how far apart the parties remain on immigration issues.
Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) slammed the bill as “extreme MAGA Republican” and said it would “weaponize and politicize the border as opposed to doing something meaningful about it.”
Inside the Bill
The border package features a laundry list of GOP priorities, including narrowing asylum eligibility, restarting border wall construction, requiring employers to use the E-Verify program to check workers’ status, increasing the size of the Border Patrol, and fast-tracking deportations.
Immigrants’ rights groups denounced the bill as a cruel effort to restrict asylum and dehumanize migrants who are fleeing trauma and political instability in their home countries. The measure would “vilify vulnerable immigrant families and children in search of protection,” Immigration Hub Executive Director Sergio Gonzales said Thursday, urging lawmakers to vote against it.
Supporters of the legislation maintain it would deter migrants who have flimsy asylum claims and unclog the immigration courts for those with valid cases.
The bill would also gut funding for the Department of Homeland Security to process migrants who cross the border without authorization, and it would block the agency’s grants for any nongovernmental organization to provide transportation, lodging, or immigration-related legal services to newly arrived immigrants deemed “inadmissible” under federal law.
Republicans have increasingly attacked humanitarian organizations that provide food and shelter to migrants at the border, saying their work facilitates illegal crossings.
Democrats have argued the measure would penalize humanitarian groups that work at the border, and have the unintended consequence of restricting DHS’s ability to contract with private companies and organizations to transport or detain migrants.
Members raised numerous concerns about the legislation from the start, with Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) and other Hispanic lawmakers slamming the plan for being too strict on asylum seekers. Bill drafters made changes to win his support.
But other issues persisted to the 11th hour. Members from agriculture-heavy districts, including Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), said requiring employers to check the legal status of employees through the E-Verify program could hurt the agriculture industry.
At the same time, another group of members including Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and members of the House Freedom Caucus said they wouldn’t support the bill because of a provision requiring DHS to study whether Mexican cartels should be classified as foreign terrorist organizations. The lawmakers said such a change could lead to a major increase in eligible asylum seekers.
A procedural vote related to the bill was delayed for four hours on Wednesday as members hashed out their differences while huddled in the offices of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).
Ultimately, most holdouts said they would back the bill after changes were made in a last-minute amendment that would have Congress study how to combat cartels and whether they should receive a special designation. The amendment also included a provision saying “the sense of Congress” is for DHS to consider and address the E-Verify mandate’s potential negative effects on the agriculture sector — a toothless measure made as a gesture to farm-focused holdouts.
The House’s partisan border bill highlights how far lawmakers are from reaching a bipartisan compromise to update US immigration and border laws.
The divisive provisions in the bill — including narrowing asylum and increasing detention, even of children — are too extreme to garner much, if any, Democratic support.
“It’s not anything that would actually be the start of a conversation, which is frustrating,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy, education, and politics at the center-left think tank Third Way.
Gonzales of Texas maintained House Republicans have “a lot of willing partners” in the Senate and have had conversations about moving border legislation forward.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) are working on their own bill to tighten border enforcement measures while providing a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. Sinema said parts of the House bill are problematic but that the Senate can work with it.
“I’m less concerned about the elements of the House Republican bill and more concerned that they get a bill over to us because that’s how we can work together,” she told reporters Thursday.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a longtime champion of a legislative solution for immigrant “Dreamers” who came to the US as children, announced this week that he’s introducing his own proposal to surge resources to border agencies and communities.
“This bill is by no means a comprehensive package, but it is an opportunity to show the American people that we are not ignoring the reality, and we can support our frontline officials from the communities that need help,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
— With assistance from Jonathan Tamari.