Senators release border-Ukraine deal to allow president to pause asylum law

Washington — A trio of senators on Sunday released a bipartisan immigration agreement with the White House that would give the president far-reaching powers to clamp down on unlawful border crossings, including the authority to turn away migrants without allowing them to request asylum.

The deal, which has been months in the making, would overhaul American border policy by restricting access to the asylum system during spikes in illegal immigration, making it harder for migrants to pass initial asylum screenings and ramping up deportations of those found to be ineligible for U.S. refuge. The agreement would preserve asylum processing at official border crossings and allow migrants who pass their asylum interviews to work in the U.S. legally.

The agreement was negotiated by Republican Sen. James Lankford, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and top Biden administration officials after Republican lawmakers demanded restrictions to U.S. asylum law in exchange for supporting more military aid to Ukraine. If enacted, the bipartisan compromise would be the first major update to the U.S. immigration system since the 1990s, the last time Congress passed a large-scale immigration law.

While the deal will likely garner the support of many Democrats and some Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, its prospects in the GOP-led House are much less certain. House Speaker Mike Johnson and other conservatives in the chamber have denounced elements of the negotiations in the Senate, instead calling on President Biden to use his executive power to deter migrants from coming to the U.S.

Nonetheless, the agreement represents a major pivot on immigration by Mr. Biden. Right after taking office three years ago, he promised to “restore” the U.S. asylum system and dismantle Trump-era border policies that “contravened our values and caused needless human suffering.” But after facing record levels of migrant apprehensions at the southern border and a growing chorus of criticism from Democratic leaders in communities struggling to help migrants, Mr. Biden and his administration have embraced drastic restrictions on asylum.

In fact, the deal brokered by the White House would be one of the toughest border and immigration laws in modern history and would not legalize any of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. without permission, an element of comprehensive immigration reform long championed by Democratic lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised the deal as a “monumental step towards strengthening America’s national security abroad and along our borders” and in a statement called it “one of the most necessary and important pieces of legislation Congress has put forward in years to ensure America’s future prosperity and security.” He noted that the agreement also contains funding to equip Ukraine in its war against Russia, as well as military aid for Israel and humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in Gaza.

He called on the Senate to act and said he would schedule the first vote on the measure for Wednesday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed his gratitude to Lankford for working on the bill and said in a statement, “The Senate must carefully consider the opportunity in front of us and prepare to act.”

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