‘So sad and scared’: Asylum fears mount as White House hints at border deal

Biden’s White House wants lawmakers to approve Ukraine aid, which Republicans have conditioned on new asylum restrictions.

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Ornela Medom, a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Cameroon, is among those calling for lawmakers to abandon a deal to exchange border restrictions for Ukraine aid [Joe Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Washington, DC – The White House has upped pressure on members of the United States Congress as it seeks a deal that could see aid for Ukraine approved in exchange for possible asylum restrictions.

Ornela Medom, a 28-year-old who fled war-torn Cameroon, is among those currently seeking asylum in the US. At a “Save Asylum” demonstration outside the Capitol, she told Al Jazeera she is horrified by what a new immigration deal could bring.

“I’m so sad and I’m so scared,” Medom said on Thursday, only a day after Republican and Democratic senators said a vote on a deal could be imminent.

Also on Wednesday, Speaker Mike Johnson suggested Republicans in the House of Representatives may take an even harder line on access at the US-Mexico border.

“Our lives depend on these secret negotiations that are ongoing,” said Medom, who arrived in the US through the southern border in April. “I am pleading for them to think about us”.

A slate of progressive and Hispanic legislators also attended Thursday’s news conference, appealing to Democrats not to accept major changes to US border law as part of any deal.

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Ornela Medom, an asylum seeker from Cameroon, addresses a news conference at the US Capitol [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

For months, the White House has sought continued aid to Ukraine, pushing for a $110bn package which would also include military funds for Israel and Taiwan, as well as other security spending.

But Republicans have premised further Ukraine aid on changes to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border. Democratic leaders like President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have signalled a willingness to compromise.

Biden “wants to make really significant change on the border”, Schumer said on Wednesday.

Asylum rights advocates, however, have described a potential deal as “extortion” and “hostage-taking”.

“Republicans are holding foreign aid hostage to extract extreme immigration measures that will not solve the problem,” Representative Nanette Diaz Barragan, a Democrat and chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told reporters on Thursday.

The terms of the deal have not yet been made public. But Diaz Barragan said they are expected to include “expanded enforcement, deportations, changes to make it harder to get asylum, and possibly limits to the president’s parole authority”.

“It’s gutting asylum, and it’s going to terrorise our communities.”

Negotiations ongoing

On Wednesday, Biden summoned a group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress to the White House in hopes of bringing negotiations closer to a conclusion. He told those assembled that they needed to “send a strong signal of US resolve” on Ukraine, the White House said in a statement.

“He was clear: Congress’s continued failure to act endangers the United States’ national security, the NATO alliance and the rest of the free world,” the statement said.

Schumer told reporters afterwards, “I am more optimistic than ever before that we come to an agreement.”

Referencing the anticipated deal, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he was “anticipating that it’ll be before us next week”.

Meanwhile, Speaker Johnson underscored that House Republicans, who have a majority in the lower chamber, would not support any deal unless it included “meaningful” new border restrictions.

He pointed to a hardline immigration bill passed by the House in May, which included a ban on claiming asylum for those who cross the border irregularly and the resumption of a policy that required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their claims to be processed.

“I told the president what I had been saying for many months, and that is that we must have change at the border, substantive policy change,” Johnson told reporters. “We must insist — must insist — that the border be the top priority.”

Speaking on Thursday, Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the entire premise of the deal must be rejected. She warned that the bipartisan efforts could herald historically “cruel, unworkable and permanent policy changes on immigration”.

“It’s imperative that my Senate colleagues and the White House understand what is on the table are policies that are so extreme that, if enacted, they would be the most exclusionary, restrictive immigration legislation since the racial quota laws of the 1920s, literally turning back the clock 100 years,” she said, referencing laws that had set immigration quotas based on nationality, excluding some altogether.

‘What will Republicans ask for the next time?’

Immigration legislation is rarely passed on the federal level in the US, where matters of migration and asylum remain a political third rail.

Instead, most recent immigration policy has been set by presidential administrations through executive actions and rules. Those are more vulnerable to court challenges than measures passed as law.

That makes the stakes of a congressional deal high. US media has reported that Senate and White House negotiators have broadly agreed in closed-door meetings to several policies reminiscent of those enacted under former President Donald Trump.

Those include making eligibility standards higher for people claiming asylum after crossing into the US irregularly, expanding the categories of arrivals who can be detained and monitored, and making it easier to expel migrants and asylum seekers.

The Associated Press also reported that one proposal under discussion would have simplified the process for deporting migrants across the country who have been in the US for fewer than two years. It is unclear whether that measure is still on the table, though.

Meanwhile, a key sticking point has been attempts to limit the White House’s ability to issue humanitarian parole, which can be used to grant access to migrants on an emergency basis. That power has been a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s most recent border strategy, which limits the ability to claim asylum at the southern border while broadening some legal pathways.

“Parole has a really long and bipartisan history of being used to provide safety to Vietnamese allies who worked with the US government, to Soviet Jewish refugees, to Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge, to Cuban political prisoners, to Haitians following the devastating 2010 earthquake, to our Afghan allies, to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion and more,” Jayapal said.

“What are we going to allow ourselves to be bullied into next?” she asked. “What will Republicans ask for the next time we need more funding for Ukraine or some other emergency?”

What comes next?

Critics say foreign aid is not the only consideration for lawmakers mulling the deal.

Border crossings have regularly hit record highs since Biden took office. The US Customs and Border Protection agency, for instance, tallied a record 2,475,669 irregular “encounters” in fiscal year 2023.

Republicans have seized on those numbers to criticise the Biden administration. But pressure is also coming from within the Democratic Party: Politicians like New York City Mayor Eric Adams have slammed Biden for not doing more to address irregular immigration.

That comes as recent surveys show support for Democrats’ handling of immigration has tanked.

A CBS News poll released in early January found Biden’s approval rating on the issue had reached an all-time low. Only 21 percent of poll participants said Biden was “handling things right”.

“Let’s be blunt: The only reason that we’re even entertaining these negotiations is that there are too many Democratic politicians who have seen the poll numbers,” Ro Khanna, a Democratic representative, said at Thursday’s news conference.

He called the deal a “colossal mistake” that would “further alienate the base of this party and compromise the soul of this party”.

For asylum seeker Medom, the stakes go far beyond the upcoming election.

She recounted how she had been detained, beaten and sexually assaulted by authorities in Cameroon — an event that finally motivated her to flee. It was a near-impossible choice that meant leaving her five-year-old daughter behind with family.

“My life and thousands of asylum seekers are in your hands,” she said in a message to US lawmakers. “Asylum is a tradition. Asylum is a value. Asylum is a right.”

Source: Al Jazeera