Hispanic Caucus frustrated with the White House on immigration negotiations

WASHINGTON — A number of Hispanic and Latino members of Congress, as well as advocacy groups, are becoming increasingly concerned that President Joe Biden may strike a deal with Republicans on immigration that they find unacceptable in order to secure passage of his high-priority Ukraine and Israel aid package.

The fear, one Capitol Hill Democrat with knowledge of the negotiations said, is that the president will accept border policy changes proposed by Republicans that are “unimaginably cruel.”

Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus demanded an “urgent” meeting with the White House over one week ago. Yet even though the president was in Washington for much of that period, it never happened.

Top Biden aides have prioritized communication with lawmakers directly involved in the negotiations, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., according to a senior administration official.

The official stressed that the White House understands the urgency and expects to ramp up its outreach to Capitol Hill this week — but that engagement will be dependent on having a clear framework to work from, which hasn’t yet emerged.

The Hispanic Caucus’ frustration has been growing for some time. Last month, on at least two occasions, Democratic senators in the group huddled with Schumer and said they did not believe Republicans were negotiating in good faith. They also said they believed the proposed restrictions on immigration could divide the Democratic caucus ahead of a key election year, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.

Schumer’s office said the purpose of the meeting was to keep senators informed on the status of ongoing negotiations.

One senator in that meeting, Alex Padilla of California, said Saturday that “allowing an aid package for our allies to be held hostage in exchange for permanent and cruel Trump-era immigration policies sets a dangerous precedent” and urged Biden “not to cave to these extreme demands.”

Padilla argued that Senate Republicans’ proposals work counter to legislation that would “modernize our immigration system and responsibly manage our border.”

A senior administration official said that White House chief of staff Jeff Zients spoke with Padilla in recent days to hear his concerns, and future conversations with other CHC members were possible in the coming days.

Much of the CHC effort is being led by the group’s leadership, including the chair, Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., who has not been asked to engage or take part in any negotiations despite repeatedly making efforts to do so, according to a source involved in the process.

“It would be an insult for the president not to meet with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at a time when none of the Senate Democratic negotiators is from the Latino community or communities representative of the border,” said one CHC member, who requested anonymity to speak candidly and criticize “foolish” Democrats who are willing to give in to GOP demands.

The lawmaker said that at a minimum, the issue of immigration should be separated from the broader foreign aid package, but that the emerging details of the talks were concerning.

“It’s at least in part a betrayal of what [Biden] said for years on the campaign trail — and before and after,” the lawmaker said when asked what they’d tell Biden privately. “If people wanted a second term of Donald Trump and his border policies, they would have elected Donald Trump in 2020.”

Another CHC lawmaker who requested to meet with Biden told NBC News that the White House and Senate leadership “must do more” to engage with the caucus.

“Border legislators know their districts best. I’ve been very disappointed in the lack of engagement from the administration on this very consequential supplemental package that ties foreign aid to fundamental changes in border and immigration policy,” Rep. Gabe Vasquez, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, said Saturday.

Vasquez, who last month introduced a border and immigration package that includes legislation backed by a handful of Republicans, said CHC members “deserve to be at the table before we are forced to vote on a bill on which we had no input or influence.”

Rep. Robert Menendez Jr., D-N.J., said in a statement that “permanently altering our asylum system and denying migrants this legal process is completely unacceptable” and urged Biden and Senate Democrats to “make clear to the GOP that critical aid for our allies cannot be used as a bargaining chip at the expense of our American ideals and values as a nation of immigrants.”

The concerns have flared even further in recent days. Earlier this week, the White House appeared willing to concede on certain provisions that would limit the number of migrants who are eligible to enter the United States to claim asylum. Biden gave his most direct public comment on the matter Wednesday, saying, “I am willing to make significant compromises on the border.”

The backlash from immigration advocacy groups was swift. A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups said Biden was “essentially telling Republicans that he’s willing to adopt Trump policies on the border.” Laura St. John, legal director for the Florence Project, an Arizona-based immigration group, said the changes would be “nothing short of devastating for people seeking safety in the United States.”

But the White House and Department of Homeland Security say that now is the time to get something done on immigration — even if it’s imperfect — because waiting could be far worse.

There’s a “feeling like we need to meet the moment. The time is now,” one official said.

Another official said if something is not done on the border now, “we leave the door open for someone like Stephen Miller to come in and do much worse,” the official said, referring to the architect of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. A third official said Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement would welcome more funding and detention space, and that they have wanted to have a discussion about asylum for a long time.

The administration signaled its openness to tougher border measures after Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked the $110 billion supplemental package, which also contained aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Such measures could include holding more migrants in detention as they await their asylum hearings, considering other countries to which they can be deported, and redefining the standard by which migrants are initially screened for asylum, known as the credible fear interview.

The negotiations, which restarted Thursday, have centered on two main pieces. One is restrictions on asylum, on which Senate Democratic negotiators have made significant concessions. They, like the administration, have been willing to raise the standard for a successful asylum screening, two sources with knowledge said.

While the vast majority of migrants can currently pass a credible fear interview, only about 37% are officially granted asylum by an immigration judge, creating a large population of migrants in the U.S. who are ultimately not eligible to live and work legally.

The credible fear standard has been “a large part of the conversation,” said a Democratic aide familiar with the talks, who added that the two parties still had not inked an agreement but that there has been “openness to talk about it.”

But negotiators have been stuck on GOP demands to restrict the president’s ability to temporarily admit refugees under humanitarian parole. Democrats fear that would lead to vast and extended periods of detention, including for children.

According to three sources with knowledge of the talks, the new Republican proposal calls for explicit restrictions on the use of parole and prohibits it as a tool for border management, though it would not invalidate existing parole grants for recipients. The GOP limits include exceptions for Cubans, one source said.

“The real sticking point is asylum is not enough,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who is part of the talks. “If we don’t get progress on parole,” he said, the deal cannot get enough GOP support. “There’s a fundamental concern among many of the Republicans that it has been abused by this administration to the tune of thousands of people, not individualized cases.”

Part of the reason immigration groups and some Democratic lawmakers are so frustrated is because they say that Biden campaigned on a more progressive immigration platform.

“Three years ago, voters soundly rejected Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. But that agenda is alive and well today in the Biden White House,” Andrea Carcamo, policy director with Freedom for Immigrants, said. “Trampling on the human right to seek asylum in negotiations with an extremist and xenophobic Republican Party is a new low for President Biden.”

While Democrats are at odds over how to handle the migrant crisis, Republicans are capitalizing on the issue as illegal border crossings continue to soar. NBC News polling shows the GOP now holds an 18-point lead when it comes to handling immigration, whereas Democrats narrowly led Republicans on the issue during Donald Trump’s presidency.

But Biden and many of his allies believe that if he’s able to secure a bipartisan deal on the issue, it will help address this vulnerability.

“Senate Republicans need to stop playing chicken with our national security. That’s what they need to stop doing. They need to compromise,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said aboard Air Force One on Friday when asked about the status of talks. “The president has said he’s willing to compromise. He is.”