(RNS), USA — While congressional Democrats are chiding Republican senators for walking away from a compromise immigration bill that restricts asylum, faith-based agencies that work with refugees and asylum-seekers expressed alarm in recent days about provisions of the bill and the turn that the conversation about immigration has taken.
“You’re not going to solve anything at the border when you start from the premise that migration is a threat to our country or that migrants are people to be feared,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute, a Catholic organization that supports migrants across the El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, border.
The wide-ranging bill, which came together after months of bipartisan negotiations, introduced a “border emergency authority” under which, when a certain threshold of migrant encounters is reached, most migrants crossing unlawfully would automatically be expelled rather than be allowed to seek asylum.
The bill also raised the legal standard for credible fear of persecution in migrants’ initial asylum screening and accelerated the timeline for asylum processing.
On Wednesday (Feb. 7), most Senate Republicans voted against the bill, with some claiming the problem is President Joe Biden’s failure to enforce existing laws. By the time of the vote it was clear the mood for compromise had disappeared, and any hopes of moving forward on the measure — negotiated under the leadership of Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford, Arizona independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy — had fallen apart.
Murphy and other Democrats have accused their GOP counterparts of folding to pressure from former President Donald Trump, who has argued that the bill would help Democrats in the November election.
But even some prominent Democrats, such as California Sen. Alex Padilla, said the bill had “missed the mark.” In a statement Sunday, Padilla, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety, called portions of the bill “a new version of a failed Trump-era immigration policy,” highlighting that negotiations had excluded border-state Democrats and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Jewish humanitarian group HIAS, one of the six faith-based agencies contracted to resettle refugees and asylum-seekers, called the bill “false advertising.”
“It’s being touted as solving our border problems. It would not do that at all because it ignores the real problems that are causing the system to rot,” Hetfield said, adding that the bill “creates new problems.”
Hetfield said that the “mess” at the border and in the asylum system is caused by an immigration system that hasn’t been reformed since the 1980s, and he called for comprehensive immigration reform. “There are very few ways for people to get into this country other than by applying for asylum, so it overburdens the asylum system,” he said.
The Hope Border Institute’s Corbett agreed. “Legal migration is what will fix the situation at the border,” he said.
While he disagreed with the premise of a “crisis at the border,” Corbett said, “the asylum system really is at saturation point,” adding that more case officers and immigration judges are needed.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Global Refuge (formerly Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service), also argued that any reform needed to expand legal pathways to immigration. “As our nation struggles with low birthrates and crippling labor shortages, we need to leverage smart immigration policy to meet our economic needs without abandoning our legal and moral obligations to people seeking refuge,” she wrote.
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