The Biden administration is denying a report that officials considered offering permanent changes to asylum laws in exchange for Republican support for aid to Ukraine, an idea that caused instant backlash among immigration advocates.
According to a report by Politico, current and former administration officials have floated the idea of horse-trading reforms that would make it harder for foreign nationals to claim asylum to get GOP lawmakers on board with a new tranche of aid to Ukraine.
The White House flatly denied the story Friday.
“This report is not accurate. As we’ve said repeatedly, Congress needs to take action to support Ukraine and to provide sufficient resources for the border,” said Angelo Fernández Hernández, a White House spokesman.
“Our immigration system is broken and only Congress has the power to comprehensively address it, that is why in his first day in office the President presented a comprehensive immigration reform bill to Congress.”
The idea of such a trade prompted shockwaves through the immigration advocacy world, including among congressional Democrats.
“We raise our strong opposition to any emergency supplemental funding bill that seeks to establish new immigration and border policy or authorities. Democrats have rebuilt the legal pathways torn down by the last administration and have advanced bipartisan bills through the House that we would like to see pass the Senate and be signed into law.,” Reps. Nanette Díaz Barragán (D-Calif.), Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said in a joint statement.
“However, trying to appease Republicans with bad border policy attached to critical emergency spending or a continuing resolution will not work and is completely inappropriate,” said the lawmakers, chairs of the Tri-Caucus — the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus — as well as the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Advocates celebrated the congressional opposition to tweaking asylum, but called on Democrats to push for funding to improve migrant outcomes at the border and beyond.
“The Tri-Caucus carries a big stick and could swing support, but when they speak out they must show that there is a way to manage the border in an effective, balanced and also fair and humane way,” said Greg Chen, senior director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“Proper resourcing and coordination by the federal government using an all-of-government approach, not just at the border but for the whole country, is the only way to solve the complex Rubik’s cube of immigration.”
In the hours between the report and the White House’s denial, advocates lashed out, incensed over the prospect that the Biden administration would permanently weaken a key humanitarian institution for a transitory gain.
“The administration does need funding for certain items … but what we don’t need are harmful policy changes that will be in law permanently,” said a top immigration advocate on a background call with reporters.
The quick call to arms highlights how human rights advocates value asylum protections, and how much they fear those protections are being eroded.
Because there are few legal avenues of entry to the United States for most migrants, the right to claim asylum can be a life-or-death resource for the most desperate.
But advocates for reduced immigration have long claimed the system is abused by economic migrants who do not face immediate life-or-death conditions and who don’t squarely fit the definitions in asylum law.
One side would tighten those requirements further, potentially risking the denial of some meritory claims but drastically reducing the number of applicants; the other would ease requirements, risking more asylum adjudications to economic migrants, but reducing the number of people wrongly thrown back to the wolves.
Regardless, immigration advocates say on-the-go political trades like Ukraine aid for asylum reform are what bred dysfunction into the immigration system in the first place.
“I’m honestly concerned this is going in the direction of the 1996 law when they were similarly trying to pass a big bill and they ended up doing slapdash policies at the last minute and putting it on the 1996 bill, and it was changes that have lasted for decades,” said an advocate on the background call.
“We all know how hard it is to reform immigration. And so we should not be doing this last minute.”
There are tangible political parallels between 1996, when then-President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) as part of a last-minute budget deal with Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to avoid a government shutdown.
That deal, cut between a moderate Democratic president and a populist Republican speaker, fundamentally changed the way immigration law is enforced in the country, aggressively raising the ante on undocumented immigrants.
Advocates say IIRIRA is proof that tough deterrent measures don’t work: The undocumented population of the United States ballooned following its implementation.
Still, Congress and the White House are barreling toward a shutdown showdown, and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is 1-and-0 in passing funding bills that potpourri disparate issues with Thursday’s package to aid Israel and cut IRS funding.
That vote, in which 12 Democrats voted yes, was designed to create the appearance of a choice between supporting the IRS and supporting Israel. House Democrats by and large denounced the move as petty politicking, rendered ineffective by parallel negotiations in the Senate.
Yet Republicans are all but certain to replicate that formula, whether on Ukraine aid or a budget, looking to insert Trump-like immigration law amendments in must-pass legislation.
Advocates say the trap is not in forcing Democrats to vote for unpalatable immigration measures, but down the road.
“On the political end, it’s not gonna solve the issue because what will happen is, three weeks later or a month later, the problem is still going to be there and people who want those restrictions are going to come right back and say, ‘look, that didn’t work,'” said an advocate on the background call.
“So we’re going to want more detention of migrants, we’re going to want more of these steps which don’t solve the problem. So if you don’t solve the problem, you don’t solve the political situation, and you get right back to where you were before.”
—Updated at 1:39 p.m.