Posted by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick | Oct 20, 2023
Unless Congress can come to an agreement on the budget by November 17, the government will shut down, forcing tens of thousands of federal employees to work without pay and suspending vital programs around the country. Right now, the biggest obstacle is the lack of a speaker of the house. No bill can pass without one. But even if the House GOP or both parties jointly pick a speaker, another issue is threatening to cause an impasse: Republicans’ demands to include radical changes to immigration law as a condition of funding the government.
Rep. Jim Jordan, who recently failed in his efforts to become speaker, is demanding that any budget bill for the Department of Homeland Security contain a provision barring the Biden administration from releasing even a single migrant after they cross the border. The idea of mandating the detention of every single migrant is increasing popular among the House GOP. It is also part of the H.R. 2, the “Secure the Border Act” which multiple Senate Republicans expressed they want attached to any border funding bill.
Detaining every migrant is not a serious proposal. Last year, even Supreme Court Justice Alito wrote that “no one suggests that DHS must do the impossible” and detain every migrant, given that “DHS does not have the capacity” to do so. Congress has funded U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers for roughly 34,000 long-term detention beds. The vast majority of those beds are currently in use. Similarly, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) short-term holding facilities are already running at or above capacity across the border.
If DHS were unable to release some migrants from custody, detention facilities would become dangerously overcrowded within hours. Overwhelmed border facilities would see a breakdown in basic medical care, and deaths would be likely to follow, as they did in 2019. The American public would again likely become outraged at images of children crammed into squalid cells or forced to sleep outside in the dirt, increasing political pressure to restart releases. And once conditions became so dangerous that human lives were in grave danger, the federal judiciary may be forced to step in and ensure that no one dies due to a congressional demand to “do the impossible.”
Even if the House GOP were to drop the unrealistic demand to bar releases, other provisions of H.R. 2 would create havoc throughout the immigration system and threaten U.S. foreign policy. For example, HR 2 would force the Biden administration to end the “Uniting 4 Ukraine” parole program, under which over 165,000 Ukrainians have come to the United States to reside in safety while the war with Russia continues. It would also end parole programs for Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Terminating those parole programs would also cause serious foreign policy ramifications, as Mexico has previously indicated that it will stop permitting the United States to return migrants from those countries to Mexico if the United States does not operate its own reciprocal parole program. And similarly, H.R. 2 requires that every migrant seeking asylum be immediately returned to Mexico, which Mexico may be unwilling to permit.
So far, there is little indication that House Democrats are interested in talks around linking the government funding bill to H.R. 2 or other immigration “reforms.” This is especially true because H.R. 2 would bar DHS from supporting state and local governments that are responding to the arrival of migrants, which the Democratic caucus is increasingly demanding on their own. Only one former Democrat, now independent, Senator Sinema is currently engaged in public negotiations with the GOP on including immigration measures as part of the budget.
There’s no doubt that Congress needs to act. States and cities across the U.S. continue to struggle with newly arrived migrants who lack housing or support in the United States, and while funding for NGOs, state, and local programs is helpful, this problem will persist if there’s no centralized response from Congress. That’s why rather than grandstanding about border policy changes, Congress needs to think through pragmatic solutions.