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Latino Texas Democrats in U.S. House push back as White House entertains GOP border policy

By Matthew Choi, The Texas Tribune

Latino Texas Democrats in U.S. House push back as White House entertains GOP border policy” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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WASHINGTON — As the White House and U.S. Senate negotiate a deal to harden the southern border in exchange for aid to U.S. allies, Texas Democrats are pushing back against Republican efforts to revive Trump-era border policies.

The Senate is hashing out the terms of an aid package to Ukraine, Israel and U.S. allies in East Asia. The White House requested the aid package earlier this fall as Ukraine’s government says it is facing a critical point in its war against Russia. The package includes provisions for shoring up border security operations to attract Republican support. But Republicans are demanding more on the border than the White House initially offered, and many Latino Democrats are concerned that the White House is entertaining stricter measures.

“We should be able to pass that funding without sacrificing the lives of desperate asylum seekers,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said at a news conference with other Hispanic lawmakers Wednesday. “They will still say the Democrats are for open borders. They will continue to lie. And yet you will have sacrificed the safety and the future of millions.”

Assisting Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan remains a bipartisan priority in the Senate. But with the Senate slated to gavel out for the year on Thursday, the tight timeline on a bipartisan priority gives Republicans a prime bargaining chip to demand major border policy changes.

The White House is opening toward the Republican position, potentially accepting a plan that would allow immediate expulsions akin to those used during the COVID-19 pandemic, detention for migrants and deportations of those who do not seek asylum, CBS News reported Tuesday.

To many of Texas’ Democrats who are Latino, that would be a reversal to the administration of former President Donald Trump — and simply unacceptable.

“Imagine if what was being proposed today was a Trump-style abortion ban in exchange for Ukraine money. We would say no. Imagine if what was being proposed today was a Trump-style repeal of Obamacare. We would say no,” U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, said at the news conference. “And if Biden and Senate Democrats are being told that they need to pass a Trump-style, anti-immigrant policy, we need to say no.”

The news conference was organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a body of Hispanic Democrats in Congress. U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, Veronica Escobar of El Paso, Castro and Casar attended from the Texas delegation. Other high-ranking Democrats outside of the caucus attended. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal and a handful of U.S. senators including Sens. Alex Padilla of California and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, also attended.

Senate Republicans assert that merely increasing funding, as the White House’s original request asks, will not be enough. They are demanding changes to asylum rules, deportations and other substantive policy reforms.

“It’s a political problem, frankly, for us to spend billions of dollars to help Israel and Ukraine, secure their borders, without taking every possible step we can in order to secure our own,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. “So we’re using the leverage we believe we have now in order to force the Biden administration to do what they should have been doing all along.”

A group of senators led by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has been hammering away at a potential compromise. They’ve faced roadbumps, and Republicans, including those steadfast on foreign aid like Cornyn, have proven immovable in needing some kind of border overhaul.

Many Republicans, particularly several vocal Texans in the House, refuse to accept anything short of complete inclusion of the Secure the Border Act. That bill passed the House last spring and includes a slew of measures that would be nonstarters for Democrats. It would resurrect construction of the border wall, make asylum seekers wait out their cases in Mexico and limit asylum claims to ports of entry.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas introduced the Secure the Border Act as an amendment to the Senate supplemental aid legislation. Other Republicans, including Cornyn, acknowledge the full House bill will not pass with a Democratic controlled Senate. But they are still pushing for a robust border overhaul.

So far, there is no Democratic consensus on an alternative plan. Numerous Democrat-backed proposals are floating in the ether, leading to disagreements about the best path forward.

Escobar and U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida introduced a package last spring dubbed the Dignity Act, which would amp border screening infrastructure, offer temporary legal status for undocumented immigrants and reform the migrant worker program. It also includes the Dream and Promise Act, which would give legal status and a pathway to citizenship to childhood arrivals.

The U.S. Citizenship Act, backed by the White House and introduced in 2021 by U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, would provide a legal pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It received over 150 cosponsors in the last Congress when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House.

But the party pushed the U.S. Citizenship Act on the backburner as it tackled infrastructure and climate legislation. It now faces practically no chances in the current Republican-controlled House. Escobar insists that a bipartisan approach is the only path forward without Democratic control of the House, and she’s welcoming changes to her bill to grow its support.

“I have felt my own frustration with my own party, with members who believe if we just wait long enough, we will one day get everything we want. And that’s not going to happen,” Escobar told reporters. “Not only will that not happen, but the political environment is getting worse.”

U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, are both in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus but did not attend Tuesday’s news conference. They also represent border districts and are generally more moderate than others in their caucus.

Gonzalez said he was open to some of the reported policies out of the White House, including expedited removals, more judges and a faster judicial process.

“This isn’t a Democratic or Republican problem. We have an American problem at the border. And I think the administration recognizes they need to make some tough policy decisions to improve conditions,” he said in a text message.

Like Escobar, Cuellar said both Republicans and Democrats need to “get off their comfort zones” and accept a bipartisan deal. But unlike her, Cuellar is open to supporting the deal discussed between the White House and the Senate, including greater detention and deportations.

Cuellar is close to his fellow centrist lawmakers, including senators negotiating the aid package. He said he’s been in contact with the senators and the White House and that he’s optimistic about their talks.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/13/texas-border-mexico-senate-white-house-foreign-aid/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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