Congress

Graham aims to advance border security bill in early June

Bill would change asylum laws and expand detention facilities to address a surge of migrants arriving at the southwest border

Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., prepare for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on prescription drugs on Tuesday, May 7, 2019.  Graham said he is willing to work with Republicans and Democrats to craft a limited immigration bill that would change asylum laws and expand detention facilities.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said he is willing to work with Republicans and Democrats to craft a limited immigration bill in short order that would change asylum laws and expand detention facilities in an attempt to address the surge of migrants arriving at the southwest border.

Speaking with a sense of urgency, the South Carolina Republican said at a news conference Wednesday that he will introduce a bill later this week that would: require immigrants to apply for U.S. asylum in their home countries instead of at the border; hire more immigration judges to reduce the case backlog that already exceeds 800,000; and modify a court settlement that currently limits the amount of time migrant children can be held in detention while they await adjudication.

[Disaster aid deal nears as White House presses border funds]

Graham said he is willing to work with Democrats to get the legislation passed and that the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing and then a markup on the bill in the next work period in early June to advance the legislation out of the committee.

“I’m trying to solve a problem that is just getting completely out of hand,” Graham said. “And let me tell you, Democrats were wrong to say it was a manufactured crisis. But I don’t think the president or his team can afford to just not sit down with Democrats. This is a real problem that’s going to require all hands on deck.”

“I am urging the president to lead us to a solution, and I am urging our Democratic colleagues in spite of your dislike and displeasure with this president to find a solution to this problem quickly,” he added.

Graham told reporters that just building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border will not stop migrants from trying to take advantage of current immigration laws.

[Trump threatens to send armed soldiers to U.S.-Mexico border]

Graham’s announcement comes a day after President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss his latest immigration proposal.

Graham said Kushner’s plan is more long-term, and focuses on border security and shifting the U.S. legal immigration system to a more merit-based system.

“The White House plan is not designed to become law. My bill is designed to become law,” the senator said. “The White House plan is trying to reunite the Republican Party around border security and merit-based immigration. I’m trying to get some relief to our Border Patrol agents.”

The White House has already sent Congress a request to provide $4.5 billion in supplemental funding to address the surge of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, but the administration wanted the supplemental tied into a disaster relief bill moving through the Senate. Democrats have shown some flexibility on the border supplemental, but they want a clearer sense of exactly how the money would be spent.

Graham said he is willing to compromise with Democrats and include language that would increase humanitarian aid to Central American countries and address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects more than 670,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers who were brought to this country illegally as children, and who are now adults.

Trump tried to end the DACA program in 2017, but courts have blocked that plan.

“I’m willing to sit down with Democrats to find a way to address the underlying problem in Central America, I’m willing to put other immigration ideas on the table to marry up with this. But what I’m not willing to do is to ignore this problem even longer,” Graham said.

‘Opportunity to sit down’

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin signaled openness to considering what Graham is proposing on legislation, at least to try to force a debate.

“It’s my understanding that Sen. Graham’s proposal is the White House proposal, and I know that it’s going to be closely scrutinized. We want to make sure that there’s humanitarian treatment for those who present themselves at our borders,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters. “We understand as well that there are some conditions in Central America which are creating this exodus toward the United States.”

“I hope the administration will take this challenge as an opportunity to sit down and address the reality of the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” Durbin said.

Durbin said he was “skeptical” Trump actually wants a bipartisan deal on immigration overhaul. Still, he said he would welcome debate in the Judiciary Committee, if Graham were to go that route. But Durbin, with heavy sarcasm, expressed skepticism that would happen.

“If we’re going to have a real committee markup, a real committee discussion and it might lead to a bill coming to the floor of the United States Senate? Imagine that, with amendments and debate, people would actually vote on the floor of the Senate on something other than a McConnell judicial nomination?” Durbin said. “It’s almost like there’s something called the United States Senate, you may remember that from the movies.”

Graham is the lead Republican sponsor on the DREAM Act, which is Durbin’s legislation that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for the immigrants in the DACA program.

Humanitarian crisis

Trump has repeatedly called what’s happening at the southern border a “humanitarian crisis” and has deployed National Guard troops, active-duty Pentagon troops and pulled civilian border personnel from other parts of the country to process the tens of thousands of migrants coming to the border every month.

In April alone, 109,144 individuals were apprehended at the southwest border, which included individuals who turned themselves in openly to Border Patrol and those deemed “inadmissible” or caught entering the U.S. illegally, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Of that total, 8,897 were unaccompanied minors and 58,474 were individuals in family units. This is the second month in a row where the monthly number of border apprehensions has exceeded more than 100,000.

In March, 103,719 individuals were apprehended at the border, including 53,077 individuals in family units and 8,975 unaccompanied minors.

Customs and Border Protection Chief Operating Officer John Sanders told reporters Wednesday that Border Patrol agents are struggling to accommodate the influx.

“These men and women have faced a crisis that poses unprecedented humanitarian operational challenges, unlike anything they have ever covered,” he said.

“Now more than ever, we need more than words, we need action,” Sanders said. “We must direct our attention to fixing the laws that have brought us to this crisis — the laws that the officers and the agents of CBP swear an oath to uphold.”

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