Hispanics in Congress are snubbing discussions of tying Ukraine funding to GOP-backed asylum changes, but immigration advocacy groups, furious at the very suggestion, are worried that Latinos are unrepresented at the negotiating table.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) is steering clear of the ongoing Senate talks, which are premised on asylum reform proposals that obliterate every red line in the immigration advocacy agenda.
But outside advocates say Latino voices are necessary whenever Congress discusses issues that disproportionately affect Hispanics.
“We are alarmed and deeply concerned that key talks in Congress about border policies and the treatment of humanitarian migrants are happening without a single Hispanic lawmaker or ally in the room,” said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS.
“The stakes are too high and the impact on our community too great for our community’s perspective to be ignored. Latinos, like most Americans, want effective and humane solutions to strengthen our borders and to protect those seeking safety and opportunity in our country.”
Negotiations led by Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) are particularly troubling to advocates.
The core Republican proposal is to exchange funding aid to Ukraine for reform of U.S. asylum law beyond recognition, purportedly to “slow the flow” of migrants to the United States, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech Wednesday.
While the Biden administration is asking for more than $13 billion for border security on top of the more than $60 billion for Ukraine aid, Republicans have scoffed at giving the administration more money for border security without forcing Biden to change his policies.
But their request wouldn’t just change Biden administration asylum policies — already a stringent interpretation of existing statute — it would permanently change U.S. law to reflect a deeply restrictive vision of asylum and hamstring the administration’s ability to grant parole to foreign nationals.
The CHC and outside groups are aligned about the gravity of the proposals, but the caucus’s message to negotiators considering gutting asylum is simply that they have the numbers to sink any such proposal.
“Any emergency supplemental funding bill that seeks to modify or establish new immigration and border policy or authorities will face strong opposition from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” Chairwoman Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
“We have seen the extreme proposals from Republicans that would forever alter our U.S. immigration system and create serious dangers for asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrants.”
The CHC’s position is further bolstered by support from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) against the GOP’s asylum vision.
But outside groups are wary about the sturdiness of that support, particularly if the White House — keen to fund Ukraine’s war efforts — comes out in favor of a deal that tightens asylum.
“Our country is facing real problems, both at home and abroad. And, we need real solutions — not gimmicks like this ‘border security’ measure, which is both one-sided and short-sighted. As leaders who advocate for empowering Latino communities and who support all immigrants, we know this is a bad deal for America,” said Katharine Pichardo-Erskine, executive director of Latino Victory Project.
“We cannot have an enforcement-only approach to immigration. We need comprehensive immigration reform, and Latino leaders at the table who can represent our communities — and American values — with the dignity they deserve. This is not the moment to let extremists dictate immigration policies. Until Republicans offer a real deal, Democrats should simply say ‘No Deal.’”
Hispanic Senate Democrats agree. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) on Wednesday wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the $13 billion border funding ask amounts to “real solutions to secure our border so we can keep communities safe from drugs and traffickers.”
“Meanwhile, Republicans are blocking the funding @POTUS needs for border security, creating more chaos to help them politically,” she wrote.
And some Democrats say their legislators could flip the script.
“This is a golden opportunity to push for what a majority of people in this country have supported for decades — protections for long-term undocumented immigrants including Dreamers, who have been a cornerstone of our economy. Giving away this chance for nothing in return on an issue that Republicans have refused to help fix would be political malpractice,” said Maria Cardona, a top Democratic political strategist.
Advocates are more concerned with the Democrats at the table than with Republican positions they view as non-starters. One who asked for anonymity to speak candidly said even talking about trading permanent changes in law for transitory funding could damage immigration talks in the future.
“Are we comfortable just moving forward enforcement and restrictions on one category of immigration eligibility in favor of foreign aid now? Because you can imagine how that becomes the future of how immigration is negotiated,” said the advocate.
“And so the caution I would say to Bennet and Murphy is, think about how you’re changing the negotiating table here.”
The Hill has reached out to Bennet and Murphy for comment.
And advocates warn that Democrats are falling into a trap, especially since there’s little evidence that asylum restrictions dissuade migrants.
An analysis of illicit border crossings by the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh found that “most of the increase” in crossings can be attributed to the U.S. labor market, rather than asylum policies.
But advocates say asylum restrictions could backfire politically, even if they did reduce migration.
“Assuming they work, it’s just interesting in the context that we’re seeing Stephen Miller be open about saying, ‘these are the policies we’re pursuing if we win,’ and the fact that what two Dems, an independent and two Republicans are talking about are similar to those plans — why would we want to move forward with something that removes one of the easiest issues for [Democrats] to contrast with Trump on?” said the advocate who requested anonymity.
That distinction, they say, will be especially important as Democrats seek to energize Latino voters in key battleground states like Nevada and Arizona, and Republicans seek to energize their own base, primed to cheer efforts to shut down asylum.
“The through line is a cruel effort to use immigration and immigrants as a boogeyman in the 2024 election cycle, demonize immigrants for political gain, and in the process undermine efforts for real policy solutions on immigration,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, a progressive immigration advocacy group.
“In the process, these efforts are helping to transform the notion of a confident and inclusive American democracy into a fearful and insular country, divided along racial and partisan lines.”