Immigration negotiations in Congress center on parole, asylum policy

WASHINGTON — A deal on changes to immigration policy remained elusive on Tuesday for top U.S. Senate negotiators.

Those leading the talks — Sens. James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema, independent of Arizona — have worked for weeks to strike a deal between the White House and Senate Republicans on immigration policy changes at the U.S. Southern border.

Congress was on a break for the holidays but returned this week.

“Everybody’s still at the table talking, so that’s a good thing,” Lankford said, adding that he’s hoping there can be bill text later this week.

Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said that negotiations on an immigration deal have made progress.

“We’re going to be persistent,” Schumer said. “We’re closer today to an agreement than we have ever been.”

For the past month, the Biden administration has been negotiating with that group of bipartisan senators to strike a deal that would tighten immigration restrictions in exchange for passage of a more than $100 billion in emergency supplemental aid for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and U.S. border security.

“There needs to be a strong border provision (as) part of (the supplemental),” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said during a Tuesday press conference.

A major demand by Republicans is to make changes to asylum law to set a higher bar for migrants to claim asylum and to curb the Biden administration’s use of its parole authority.

Republican Whip Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said that the White House and Democrats “are now finally starting to address (parole), and if they can get that addressed, we’ll see how it goes this week.”

Thune added that it’s unlikely that there will be an agreement on immigration and the supplemental before Congress’ first funding deadline on Jan. 19. If it is not met, there could be a partial government shutdown.

Mayorkas impeachment

The talks in the Senate come as House Republicans are moving forward with a Wednesday hearing that begins impeachment proceedings against Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the Biden administration’s immigration policy at the Southern border.

Mayorkas, who visited the Southern border on Monday, defended his agency’s policies and called on Congress to pass immigration reform.

“Some have accused DHS of not enforcing our nation’s laws,” Mayorkas said during his trip to the border. “This could not be further from the truth.”

Mayorkas said that Border Patrol agents and officers dealt with a high number of migrants at the Southern border in December.

Since fiscal year 2024 began on Oct. 1, there have been more than 483,000 encounters with noncitizens at the Southwest land border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.  

House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana also led a delegation of House Republicans to the Southern border recently, criticizing the White House’s immigration policy, and advocating for Trump-era immigration policies.

Debate over parole

Democrats and immigration advocates have pushed back against changes to asylum and parole authority.

Nicole Melaku, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of more than 60 immigrant and refugee rights organizations, said proposals to change asylum and parole will “only worsen existing challenges at the border.

“We urge you to hold the line and bring forward solutions that improve our immigration system, fully resource welcoming infrastructure, and honor our nation’s long-standing responsibility to offer refuge to those in need of safety,” Melaku said.

There are two ways the Biden administration has used parole authority. The first is for certain nationals such as Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans to temporarily work and live in the U.S.

The administration has also used parole authority on a case-by-case basis for migrants.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the U.S secretary of Homeland Security has the authority to “parole into the United States temporarily under such conditions as he may prescribe only on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit any [noncitizen] applying for admission to the United States.”

Lankford has stated multiple times that he wants to curb the Biden administration’s broad use of parole authority for migrant releases at the border.

Murphy said he thinks it’s important to preserve the presidential authority to use parole, but did not specify the potential changes to the White House’s use of parole authority under discussion.

“The president uses parole to help better manage the border and to make sure that people are vetted before they arrive,” Murphy said. “My worry is that many Republicans who are asking for parole reforms are actually trying to increase, not decrease, the chaos at the border.”

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