U.S. Lawmakers Introduce First Bill Designed to Address Migrant Surge

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Two U.S. senators from southern border states confronting an influx of migrants said they’re introducing legislation designed to alleviate the intense demands on the U.S. immigration system and help nudge forward the stymied debate over immigration law.

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona propose establishing four regional centers along the border to speed processing of migrants arriving in the country illegally. Their plan also would improve protections for unaccompanied minors who are released to sponsors in the U.S., including regular follow-ups with their new caregivers.

Among other changes, they would add 150 judges to plow through a backlog of about 1.2 million cases in the immigration court system, and provide additional personnel for agencies that include Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Our goal is to pass a partial solution to this decades-old problem,” Sinema said in a call with reporters about the bill. A companion bill will be introduced in the House by two Texas representatives -- Democrat Henry Cuellar and Republican Tony Gonzales.

Cornyn said the measure would be a first step on immigration that could help break the partisan deadlock that has been exacerbated by the surge of migrants trying to enter the U.S. and enable a consensus over other immigration changes later this session of Congress.

“I think we would be well-advised to do this now and then build from there,” Cornyn said.

More than 172,000 migrants were apprehended at the U.S. border with Mexico in March, the highest number in about two decades. The influx has caused a political and humanitarian crisis for President Joe Biden, who has said that the U.S. must address “root causes” of migration such as poverty and violence in Central America.

The surge has stalled a drive by Biden and congressional Democratic leaders to push through a broad immigration overhaul through Congress this year. Republicans are demanding the Biden administration first address the influx, in part by restoring a Trump-era policy that requires migrants who cross the frontier to go back to Mexico to file for asylum and wait there while their claims are considered.

While Biden promised a comprehensive rewrite of immigration law during his presidential campaign, Democratic leaders in both chambers have now adopted more piecemeal goals for immigration policy. The Democrat-led House narrowly passed two immigration bills in March. One would provide green cards and the prospect of eventual citizenship to young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, while the other would provide legal status for migrant agricultural workers.

In the Senate, Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin is leading bipartisan talks to see if those two House bills could be combined with a border security package and other provisions to get enough backing to clear the Senate, which is split 50-50 between the two parties. He said on Wednesday that conversations are continuing between a group of senators, but no deal is imminent. Sinema and Cornyn said that they will meet with Durbin next week to talk about their new bill.

Republicans are heaping on the criticism of Biden policies they say are a magnet for migrants, including his campaign promise of a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. The administration rejects suggestions his policies are the cause.

Vice President Kamala Harris will speak with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday to discuss the migrant surge at the southern border, and will visit the region in June, as part of her role in leading the administration’s diplomatic response to the migrant surge. The vice president plans to discuss relief for Guatemala with Giammattei and ways to deepen cooperation with his government on migration.

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