Key GOP Senator Seeks Tighter Asylum Rules to Curb Border Crisis

(Bloomberg) -- The Senate Homeland Security chairman says he wants to tighten asylum standards for migrants crossing the southern border and allow longer detentions, as Republican lawmakers seek their own get-tough response to a surge in people entering the U.S.

Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said he’s drafting legislation that would move migrants more quickly through the asylum application process and permit them to be detained for longer so they can be removed from the U.S. quickly if their claims are denied.

“We have to speed up that whole process,” Johnson said after a two-day visit to the border at El Paso, Texas. “Where it’s not a valid asylum claim, we have to remove people. That is the deterrent. That is what is going to dramatically reduce border crossings. ”

Johnson’s effort follows dramatic actions by President Donald Trump and his administration to address surging border apprehensions, including a more than 300 percent year-over-year increase in the number of families detained. Immigration has proved a potent motivator for Trump’s supporters, and the president has kept the issue at the top of his policy agenda and political talking points as he prepares for his 2020 re-election campaign.

Homeland Security Purge

Seeking a tougher tack on border security, Trump this month pushed out Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other top immigration officials. His attorney general, William Barr, took steps Tuesday to deny some migrants the ability to post bail while asylum claims are pending.

Trump’s DHS purge and the surge in asylum seekers have alarmed Republicans in Congress, who are seeking their own response. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week called for bipartisan legislation on immigration for the first time since a drive for a comprehensive overhaul collapsed in the chamber early in 2018. A later proposal for narrow bipartisan legislation addressing family separations at the Mexico border also went nowhere, and some lawmakers are skeptical this time can be any different.

Senator Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, said it will be hard for Republicans who control the Senate to get any deal with the Democrat-led House.

“I’m not sure that both sides necessarily want to come to an agreement,” Rounds said. “You have a president that Republicans want to support, and on the other side of it I think a lot of our Democratic colleagues would just as soon see him struggle with it.”

Tighter Standards

Johnson said he wants to change existing law so that asylum-seekers can be detained for as long as 90 days. A 1997 consent decree known as the Flores settlement prevents the government from holding a minor child for more than 20 days.

He is proposing a tighter “credible fear” standard that currently about 90 percent of asylum applicants meet, allowing them to stay in the U.S. and continue their claim. Johnson says he wants to adjust eligibility so that 50 percent or fewer can pass the initial test, since only about 20 percent of asylum applications are ultimately successful.

“We have to raise that bar on the initial determination,” Johnson said, adding that too many who seek asylum are actually entering to take jobs in the U.S. He said his measure will temporarily boost the number of immigration law judges and other resources to speed decision-making.

Johnson said he will work with Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham on the proposal, which they’ll discuss with Democrats later this month. Graham said Sunday on Fox News that “it’s got to be a bill the president will sign,” and that the only way to address the crisis at the border is through Congress changing the laws governing asylum and detentions.

‘Major Intervention’

But Democrats in Congress have their own ideas. A Democratic aide said Senate Democrats will soon reintroduce a 2018 proposal that would expand the refugee process in Mexico and Central America by strengthening asylum options in those countries and allowing eligible applicants for asylum to begin the process at U.S. embassies in Mexico and Central America.

And while Trump is threatening to cut off U.S. aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Senate Democrats want to boost it. Their bill proposed $7.5 billion over five years -- double current levels -- to help Central American governments curb corruption and combat drug trafficking and criminal gangs.

“We need to do the opposite of what Trump is doing with respect to a major intervention with support to the countries in the region,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said last week. “We need to address this on the front lines.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week said that House Democrats want a “comprehensive” immigration overhaul without specifying their priority provisions. House Democrats are laying some early markers with planned House votes in May to help migrants with temporary protected status and undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” who came to the U.S. as children.

American Values

Meanwhile, funding for immigration enforcement has become a political flash point as progressives question how government money is used in facilities where migrants have allegedly been mistreated. Senator Kamala Harris of California, a presidential candidate, led a coalition of 19 Democrats in a letter released Thursday calling for limits on funding for Trump’s strict immigration policies. All five of the other Senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president signed the letter.

Johnson said his trip to the border let him view up close a system where migrants are turning themselves in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for processing of their asylum claims. He said Mexican drug cartels play “the central role” in helping those people cross into the U.S.

“No one crosses without paying their fee to the drug cartels,” Johnson said. “It’s important for people to realize this is incredibly well-organized and highly profitable business for the human traffickers. They’re using Customs and Border Protection as part of their funnel into America.”

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