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Murphy pushes bipartisan border bill as CT activists raise concerns

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy standing in front of the Yuma borderline during a recent trip to the southern border in Texas and Arizona.
Office of Sen. Chris Murphy
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy standing in front of the Yuma borderline during a recent trip to the southern border in Texas and Arizona.

After months of negotiations, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., late Sunday released the details of a national security bill that includes changes to immigration policy as Congress fiercely debates reforms to manage migrant crossings at the southern border.

But the legislation faces roadblocks in Washington as well as some resistance back at home. Some immigrant rights groups in Connecticut are sharing concerns about the implications for migrants, arguing that it could worsen the situation for those seeking refuge, while others are commending elements of the bill like work permits and legal counsel.

Murphy and his fellow negotiators have been working on a bipartisan proposal after Republicans sought to tie border restrictions to President Joe Biden’s emergency national security request with aid for Ukraine. The newly released bill also includes money for Israel, humanitarian aid for Gaza, additional investments in the submarine industrial base and a measure to try to curb fentanyl from coming into the country.

As the lead Democratic negotiator, Murphy was involved in talks since last fall with U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and U.S. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. Murphy and others were largely mum on details ahead of time but had at one point indicated differences over humanitarian parole, which gives a president temporary authority to allow certain migrants into the U.S.

But after Senate leadership set a deadline to finish the bill and take an initial vote on it this week, the group released the $118 billion bill on Sunday evening.

The first major test for the bill and whether it has enough support will be on Wednesday in the Senate. Senate Republicans are expected to block it during a procedural vote. The measure needs 60 votes to move it forward or it will stall, though Democratic leadership can still bring it up for another procedural vote.

Border and immigration provisions in the bill

The border section of the 370-page bill would create a new emergency authority for the next three years, requiring the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to prohibit entry into the U.S. if encounters at the border reach 5,000 per day over a 7-day average or if encounters surpass 8,500 in a single day.

When this authority is exercised, migrants who try to enter the country illegally would not be granted asylum and would be deported. Exceptions would be made for unaccompanied minors and individuals seeking refuge who can stay in the country if they qualify under the U.N. Convention Against Torture. And 1,400 claims for asylum would still need to be processed daily at ports of entry during this emergency power.

The asylum process would also face a number of reforms. The legislation would raise the standard of “credible fear of persecution” during screenings. It would seek to reduce wait times by hiring more personnel at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services instead of through immigration courts to help address case backlogs.

Negotiators say this will help process claims in six months instead of taking years. Those whose cases are under review and not processed quickly would be monitored. While critics say it moves away from detainment, they still raised major concerns over the surveillance of migrants like tracking through ankle bracelets.

Murphy touted measures like more work permits and visas as well as a right to counsel for unaccompanied minors under 13 during removal proceedings. The bill would give automatic work authorizations to fiancés, spouses or children of a U.S. citizen who are waiting for an immigrant visa as well as the spouses or children of H-1B visa holders who are specialty workers. It would also provide 250,000 visas for each of the next five years, divided between family and employment needs.

Other immigration measures include some limits to presidential parole authority — though it would leave intact a program for people to sponsor those from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela who want to relocate, as well as permanent residency for Afghan nationals who worked with Americans during the war and fled after the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2021.

The bill does not include protections for Dreamers, who are individuals brought into the country illegally as children. Advocates were hoping to enshrine protections for them into law, especially with the Supreme Court likely to weigh in on the legality of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that shields them from deportation.

Advocates in Connecticut like Constanza Segovia, a community organizer, argued that the proposed policies would provide more help to those coming to the border when “we need solutions for people who are already here” in the U.S.

“We still have work to do, like providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and other undocumented people, but this bill is an important down payment on immigration reform,” Murphy said in a statement.

“This bill is no doubt controversial. There’s no way of doing anything bipartisan on immigration without it being controversial, but I think it’s consistent where most people across the country and most people in Connecticut want us to land on this issue,” he said in an interview on Monday.

Tough road ahead in Congress

Immigration reform has long eluded Congress, despite past attempts to work on the issue coming up short after some bipartisan momentum in 2013.

Murphy traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border last January to learn more about issues there and the potential for future compromise. He said his involvement on trying to strike a compromise started with Lankford after last year’s trip to the border — before Congress was tasked to pass Biden’s national security supplemental package.

The Connecticut senator has been a fixture in a couple of recent bipartisan negotiations, most notably when he led a group to craft gun safety legislation in 2022. But Murphy has said his work on immigration policy has been more challenging than crafting the first gun control bill to pass in about three decades.

While negotiators overcame the first major hurdle and have Biden’s support, the bill still faces long odds in both chambers of Congress. It is unclear if it can garner support from at least 60 senators to make it to final passage. Hours after the bill was released, a number of Senate Republicans and Democrats came out against the legislation.

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., bemoaned the behind-closed-doors nature of the talks as well as the exclusion of Latino senators from the negotiating table.

Padilla indicated that he had seen only parts of the bill before Sunday’s release. Murphy said he had spoken frequently with him throughout the negotiations, which the Connecticut senator said helped inform some of the provisions in the package.

“After months of a negotiating process that lacked transparency or the involvement of a single border-state Democrat or a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, it is no surprise that this border deal misses the mark,” Padilla said in a statement.

“The deal includes a new version of a failed Trump-era immigration policy that will cause more chaos at the border, not less,” Padilla added, referring to an emergency authority former President Donald Trump invoked, known as Title 42, that allowed him to prevent border crossings because of the pandemic.

Even if it passes in the Senate, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has called the bill “dead on arrival.” And hours after the bill text became public, House Republican leadership vowed to block it from getting a vote in the House.

Murphy, Lankford and Sinema have also sought to push back on criticism of the legislation, particularly on Republican opponents’ claims that the bill would allow 5,000 migrants into the country a day.

“Even if it doesn’t become law, I think it’s important we now have Republicans on the record supporting immigrants having lawyers and representation going into proceedings,” Murphy said, adding that their support for new pathways to citizenship for Afghans and children of H-1B visa holders “all bodes well for the future.”

Connecticut’s perspective

Prior to the release of the bill, immigrant rights groups in Connecticut voiced issues with the negotiations, fearing certain policies would scale back legal immigration, particularly for asylum seekers. Many of them still feel the same now that the legislation has been made public.

“It feels like an unserious attempt at actually fixing the situation that we’re in,” said Segovia, who is a co-founder and lead organizer of Hartford Deportation Defense. “Why even pretend that there is a way to address immigration when it’s not looked at it from a holistic serious place? When will we have a day when we take a serious look at American foreign policy and why people are moving and moving here?”

“It’d be nice to have a serious conversation about what one could do with the 11 million-plus people who are here undocumented, who right now, it’s an intentional underclass that is being kept from the right to work,” she added.

Others say they are not taking a specific position on the legislation or weighing in on whether lawmakers should support it. But they believe Congress should take action that does not limit legal immigration, helps with the backlog of cases at ports of entry and provides more work permits.

Throughout the negotiations, Murphy said he kept in contact with these groups in Connecticut as well as national organizations on such policies.

“I’ve relied on the Connecticut immigration rights movement. This bill is a compromise. It’s not going to make advocates on either side happy. I understand that, but a lot of the things I heard that were important ended up as part of this bill,” Murphy said in a Monday interview, citing legal representation and work permits.

“A lot of the things I said no to in the negotiating room were red lines from Connecticut groups,” he continued. “I understand that this is a true compromise and as such won’t get universal support from advocacy groups, but I do think it’s time to make some serious changes.”

A group of 60 organizations wrote a letter to Murphy in early December about the border talks. The advocates argued such proposals could “create more chaos and disorder at the southern border.”

That letter prompted a few meetings with the senator late last year. In those meetings, they said they expressed disappointment about the direction of the bipartisan talks as well as not including protections for Dreamers in the legislation. Murphy said he would have liked to get those protections into the bill but had to keep the legislation “somewhat narrow” to get an end product that would get a vote in Congress.

Before the bill was released, Susan Schnitzer, president and CEO of Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, said some concerns may have been addressed when it comes to improving care and rights for youth. The legislation ultimately included legal counsel and visas for some children and teenagers.

Her group has four offices across Connecticut that work on refugee resettlement. She said she has seen an increase over the past year in unaccompanied minors. Her group CIRI has confronted the same issues as many other immigration groups and services: longer wait times to set up appointments that increased from three weeks and are now up to two to three months.

Schnitzer said policies that “limit legal immigration could make things worse,” emphasizing that federal legislation should prioritize “humane and safe” reforms.

“It’s not my place to support or not support” the legislation, Schnitzer said in an interview last week. “My hope while passing this bill is there would be items in there and practices that would help benefit folks coming to the country.”

While the fate of the legislation is uncertain, Maggie Mitchell Salem, executive director of Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services based in New Haven, hopes to see the provisions that benefit her clients’ needs the most move forward in some capacity.

IRIS is part of the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program and has grown into a national organization working with 17 states on refugee resettlement. People can sponsor and host refugees, with many of them coming from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua.

Salem said IRIS clients would benefit most from the Afghan portion of the bill that would allow a pathway to citizenship as well as additional employment authorizations — though, on a personal level, she sees the other parts of the bill as problematic and wants to uphold international law on rights for people to seek asylum.

“Are we going to embrace immigration?” Salem said. “We see immigration as something that benefits those who are immigrating and benefits the U.S. It requires a majority of us to have a mindset that sees it as a win-win and not a lose-lose fight.”

Mitchell’s argument was echoed by Steve Kennedy, a local organizer in Newtown who has been involved in politics and policy. And he expressed concerns about the approach from negotiators like Murphy, arguing that prioritizing “compromise for the sake of compromise” hurts leverage in debates on immigration policy.

“If that is your position coming in, you’re always at the mercy of extremists on the other side,” Kennedy said. “I don’t see anybody in the Democratic Party making the positive case for immigration like you might have seen 10 years ago.”

The path forward

Some Republicans are receptive to a deal, even as the party still pushes its own legislation that would significantly restrict legal immigration. Plus, Republicans have been facing pressure from Trump, who wants members to oppose the efforts.

Democrats are accusing Republicans of opposing the deal to maintain a border crisis and keep it as a political wedge issue that could benefit Trump in the 2024 presidential election if he faces Biden again.

“I think what is very scary to some Republicans is that the deal we have reached will actually fix a big part of the problem,” Murphy recently told reporters.

Democratic support is also not guaranteed, especially among those who wanted more protections for migrants and Dreamers. But others are hoping Congress can still pass the bill, including Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont.

In an interview Friday on CNBC, Lamont said the migrant control issue rippled far from the southern border, noting that he had written a statement with the Republican governor of Vermont urging Congress and the White House to negotiate a solution.

“It’s hitting us. I see what it’s doing to the country. They’ve got to secure the border. I tell President Biden, we’ll send the Connecticut Guard down to help you if that’s what you need to get it done,” Lamont said.

Lamont said the White House indicated that the bill negotiated by Murphy and others was the solution. The governor was asked if he saw the said busing of migrants north as a political ploy or an effective way to engage the rest of the country. He suggested it was a bit of both.

“A, it’s a political ploy. B, it got the governor of Connecticut’s attention,” Lamont said. “I can tell you, [for] governors on both sides of the aisle, this is of preeminent importance. They gotta get this bipartisan compromise done. Don’t say, ‘We’re gonna put it off for a year due to politics.’ It’s hitting states even like Connecticut.”

CT Mirror staff writer Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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