Negotiators consider expanding expedited deportations as border talks near ‘finish line’

WASHINGTON — Some small signs of agreement in bipartisan border security negotiations are emerging, including new progress on plans to closely track and rapidly deport more migrants who cross illegally, according to a U.S. official familiar with the Biden administration’s point of view and a Republican senator briefed on the negotiations.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who is engaged in the bipartisan discussions but is not part of the main negotiating group, confirmed to NBC News that expanding the tracking and expedited removal of migrants is “one of the open areas of discussion.”

The idea being discussed is an expansion of a program already in place to track migrant families, known as Family Expedited Removal Management, or FERM, which places ankle bracelets on the heads of household, implements a curfew for all family members and requires migrants to be tracked until their court hearings. If they are determined not to qualify for asylum, they are prioritized for fast deportation under the program.

The U.S. official said the Biden administration favors the idea and has already begun to expand FERM to more locations.

FERM provides an “alternative to detention” rather than keeping families in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the official said, and it could be extended to monitor other migrants beyond family groups. However, the expansion would require more funding for ICE officers to oversee the monitoring and deportations, the official said.

The White House declined to comment.

The plan could help alleviate gridlock in the negotiations over mandatory detention for all migrants awaiting asylum decisions, a Republican request that Democrats have opposed. Immigration advocates have said it would be a reversal of then-candidate Joe Biden’s signature campaign promise to end family and prolonged detention. Other Democrats have said mandatory detention would be logistically impossible with detention facilities already well beyond capacity.

A further sign of progress is that more people are now being briefed on the details of the negotiations. Senate Democrats had a multi-hour discussion Tuesday led by Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the three key negotiators, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Republicans, too, have had several sessions with top GOP negotiator James Lankford of Oklahoma, including a special conference meeting Wednesday from which senators emerged hopeful that a deal was within reach but vocal about issues the two sides continue to be apart on.

Still, Murphy said negotiators have settled on several changes that would significantly reform U.S. immigration policy. Without an agreement on everything, however, the deal could still fall apart.

“I’m not saying I’m optimistic. I just can see the finish line, and then once we get there, we got to sell it,” Murphy told reporters Thursday. “So we obviously made a decision this week to read in our colleagues. But none of them are going to commit until they see the final details.”

Further complicating negotiations is funding for Israel and Ukraine, which Republicans demanded be tied to border security.

The biggest sticking point that has plagued negotiations for weeks is humanitarian parole, an executive branch power that the Biden administration has used to allow people from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and other countries to come to the U.S. by applying from abroad to enter legally.

Democrats have not entertained the idea of retroactively taking away humanitarian parole from those populations. Tillis said that going forward, he would like to see a cap on the number of immigrants who can enter under humanitarian parole that could be exceeded only with congressional approval.

“What we’re saying is if you’re serious about only using this for situations that arise in Ukraine or Venezuela or something, let’s put a cap on it. Anything in excess of the cap is subject to an affirmative vote of Congress,” he said, noting that that was one option Republicans have advocated for in discussions.

Democrats fundamentally disagree with Republicans’ position, arguing that the administration’s use of humanitarian parole has kept migrants seeking asylum from making the treacherous journey to reach the southwest border.

“No other tool at the president’s disposal has been so effective in reducing unauthorized crossings as has parole. Limiting this ability will only push more people to cross in between the ports of entry, exacerbating the very problem that Republicans claim they want to solve,” Murphy said Thursday in a speech on the Senate floor.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a conversation about reforming this practice. I’m at the table. But to completely deny the president the ability to use parole is to make the situation at the southwest border more unmanageable, not less unmanageable,” he added.