Senate Republicans who visited the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday demanded that the Biden administration restore a Trump-era policy that requires migrants who cross the frontier to go back to Mexico to file for asylum and wait there while their claims are filed.
The group, led by Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, said that any congressional action on immigration policy is unlikely until that happens, arguing the change in direction is critical to stopping the arrival of migrants at the border, many of them unaccompanied children, that began last year and has jumped in the weeks since Biden came into office.
“How can you pass an immigration bill when you have an open border,” Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference in Mission, Texas, in the sweeping Rio Grande Valley.
Some senators among the nearly 20 who made the trip said they saw migrant children crammed into a nearby detention center and that there are growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Cruz described seeing toddlers and other young children “lying side by side, touching each other” and covered by silvery emergency blankets.
“The Biden administration wants to hide what is going on here,” said Cruz, who said he pushed unsuccessfully to get cameras into the facility.
The trip, also made by senators including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, adds further to the partisan tension as Biden faces steep humanitarian challenges at the border. Earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that 100,441 people tried to cross into the U.S. illegally in February, the first full month of the Biden administration, a 28% increase over January. More than 9,500 unaccompanied children came to the border in February, a 62% jump above January.
At a news conference Thursday, Biden rejected the assertion from Republicans, and some Democrats, that his welcoming rhetoric toward migrants is the reason more of them are arriving. He defended his efforts to repeal Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, and said that’s not why migrants make the often dangerous trek north.
The president also expressed confidence that Mexico would accept families who come to the U.S. border. While the Biden administration has said families are being expelled under a public-health order invoked by Trump during the pandemic, an increasing number have remained in the U.S., officials have said, because Mexico has been unwilling to receive them.
Negotiations With Mexico
“We’re in negotiations with the president of Mexico. I think we’re going to see that change,” Biden said at the news conference, his first formal one at the White House. “They should all be going back.”
Lawmakers in both parties are heading to the border as the upheaval continues. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, on Friday led a small group of Democratic lawmakers in a visit to a Carrizo Spring, Texas, facility for unaccompanied minors. On Saturday, Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, also of Texas, is to lead a group of nine House lawmakers in both parties to another facility for minors in El Paso.
Republicans are heaping on the criticism of Biden policies they say are a magnet for migrants, including his campaign promise of a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.
Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday morning, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Biden administration “still refuses to even admit there’s a crisis, much less address it.”
“Unaccompanied children are literally piling up in close quarters,” McConnell said. “It turns out when politicians spend a two-year campaign advertising amnesty, people actually listen.”
There are no immediate plans in Congress for any legislative response to the crisis, and top Democrats including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin say that Biden’s call for comprehensive immigration reform is likely dead in this session of Congress.
The Democrat-led House last week narrowly passed two immigration bills last week in a more piecemeal approach. Nine Republicans joined all House Democrats to pass the Dream and Promise Act, H.R. 6, on a 228-197 vote, which would provide green cards and the prospect of eventual citizenship to young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers. The House also approved, 247-174, another bill to provide legal status for migrant agricultural workers, with 30 Republicans voting in favor.
In the Senate, split 50-50 between the two parties, Republicans say that even a more modest measure like the Dream Act can’t clear now without a significant investment in border security or asylum law changes, or both. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who often seeks bipartisan compromises, called the situation at the border “a disaster.”
“I’ve always been sympathetic to both groups, particularly the Dreamers and giving them a path to citizenship,” Collins said. “As a practical reality, given what’s happening on the border right now, I think it would have to be combined with some border security issues.”
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