Dana Gentry, Nevada Current
February 6, 2024
As mayors and governors clamor for help coping with the influx of asylum seekers arriving in the nation’s metropolitan areas, a bipartisan compromise negotiated in the Senate would allow migrants to begin supporting themselves sooner than the current 180-day waiting period.
“Today, the process to get to a final decision on a migrant’s asylum claim can take 5-7 years,” says a fact sheet from the White House. “That is far too long.” The measure would reduce that time to six months, according to Pres. Joe Biden’s administration, by replacing a lengthy court process with an expedited evaluation by trained asylum officers.
Asylum seekers who pass the government’s maximum 90-day screening process would be allowed to seek employment immediately, according to a White House fact sheet.
“That’s one of the positives in the bill,” says Michael Kagan, director of UNLV’s Immigration Clinic. “But you get that only if you get through all the initial screening, and fewer people would be able to get through.”
But Kagan says the bill would “wipe out a major pillar of U.S. immigration” and “close the asylum system down. It’s really jaw-dropping and probably the type of thing we would expect from the first year of the Trump administration. But instead it’s coming from Democrats.”
The government would have the ability to turn away those attempting to cross the border without authorization when the number of migrant crossings reaches 5,000 a week or 8,500 a day. In December, customs officials reported a record of more than 300,000 encounters with migrants at the southern border.
The bill includes a “massive expansion of funding for ICE and immigration detention,” says Kagan, adding that “immigrants and advocates for America being a welcoming country to immigrants are losing” to a political bargain that “isn’t even remotely the kind of deal that was usually sold as comprehensive immigration reform. Usually you would trade legalization for undocumented immigrants for ramped up enforcement at the border.”
“There’s nothing good in the bill for Nevada because there’s nothing for Dreamers, there’s nothing for long-standing undocumented immigrants,” Kagan said. “And basically, immigrants are traded explicitly for military aid for Ukraine.”
The bill ties immigration reform measures to $60.1 billion in military aid to Ukraine, $14.1 billion for Israel and $10 billion in humanitarian aid for civilians caught up in global crises, including in Gaza and Ukraine.
The bill, deemed “dead on arrival in the House” by former Pres. Donald Trump during a rally in Las Vegas last month, may be on life support in the Senate, too. On Monday, at least 20 Republican senators voiced opposition to the measure, which needs 60 votes to pass a procedural vote scheduled for Wednesday.
Democrats contend Trump wants the bill killed in order to block Biden from chalking up a victory and to keep the contentious immigration issue on the table for the duration of the election.
In 2020, as part of a broader effort to dismantle the asylum program, then-Pres. Trump increased the waiting period for migrants to apply for a work permit from 150 days after submitting an application to 365 days. A judge struck down the Trump rule in 2022 and the Dept. of Homelad Security repealed it and established the 180-day rule.
Now, amid a national labor shortage, supporters are hoping the need for migrant labor will make the border bill’s workforce provisions more palatable.
The effort is the result of lengthy negotiations in the Senate led by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona, Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and is hailed by the Biden administration as a means of relieving the burden on cities and states that provide housing and assistance to migrants during the waiting period.
Mixed reactions from Nevada elected Democrats
Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nevada), who took heat from immigration advocates last month for siding with Republicans on a resolution blaming Biden for the crisis, declined to comment on the border bill specifically.
Half a dozen Republicans are vying in the primary election for the opportunity to challenge Lee.
“It’s no secret that we need more resources to process asylum claims more efficiently so those fleeing violence and persecution can come here to live, work, and pay taxes,” she said Monday in a statement to the Current. “We need real solutions that protect our border and create a path to citizenship like the bipartisan Dignity Act because that’s how we keep people safe, boost our economy, and live up to our American values.”
The Dignity Act would require $10 billion over five years to expand and modernize ports of entry and to ensure funding for the Dignity Program, which would grant legal status to undocumented individuals who pass a criminal background check, pay outstanding taxes, and pay a $5,000 fee over the course of seven years.
Sen. Jacky Rosen, who is up for re-election this year, did not respond to requests for comment on the border bill.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, “supports the bipartisan border agreement and the updates it makes to the asylum process,” a spokeswoman said late Monday.
“Trading permanent anti-refugee policies for one-time foreign aid is a bad deal,” Nevada Assemblyman Howard Watts said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “It would be a dramatic step backwards in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform & would fail our Dreamers and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) holders, leaving them in limbo for the foreseeable future.”
“There are actions that Congress needs to take where we’re not treating immigrants as political footballs and where we really recognize the need for a humane and sane border policy,” acting Labor Secretary Julie Su said in an interview Friday before the text of the border bill became public.
Su added it’s essential the federal government has the funding to address the issue. The bill calls for spending $4 billion to hire 4,300 asylum officers.
According to Su, the Labor Dept., “in response to mayors and governors who’ve asked for support,” is trying to identify migrants who are entitled to work permits but haven’t obtained them, and connect them with jobs.
In addition to being prohibited from working, asylum seekers are ineligible for federal benefits such as Medicaid.
“If the federal government properly resourced the asylum system that we have, and provided support for people’s welfare after they arrive, there might be fewer hardships for localities,” says Kagan. “Unfortunately, I think President Biden failed at the beginning of his presidency to lay out an alternative vision for what we’re trying to achieve at the border. So instead you have a Democratic president chasing Donald Trump’s goals.”
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