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$118 billion border bill sparks mixed reaction among immigrant advocates and experts

A line of people are seen in shadow as the sun sets behind them.
Eric Gay
Migrants who crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico in September were lined up for processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Eagle Pass, Texas.

A $118 billion bipartisan border bill unveiled by a group of senators Sunday night is being greeted with mixed reactions.

Some on the political far right say it doesn’t go far enough while those on progressive left say it goes too far in restricting legal pathways for migrants.

The bill includes money for aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan as well as funding for humanitarian aid in Gaza and other conflict zones. It gives the president the authority to “shut down the border” if the number of migrants seeking asylum reaches above a certain daily or weekly limit. It also raises the bar for migrants to qualify for asylum.

Sameera Hafiz, Policy Director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in Austin, said the proposed changes would “catastrophically alter the asylum system.

“The crisis we are facing today is that politicians don’t listen to our border communities and what they need; the crisis is that politicians don’t resource the myriad organizations and services necessary to support migrants,” Hafiz said. “Since day one of the Biden Administration the ILRC has offered immigration policy solutions, grounded in the needs of immigrant communities, that continue to go unheard, despite the promises that President Biden made on the campaign trail.”

Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center is urging Congress to reject the bill. Efren C. Olivares, deputy legal director for immigrant justice, condemned the bill and its restrictive asylum rules.

“This bill would only ensure that we sent individuals and families back to danger,” Olivares said. “Our country should not use people seeking asylum as pawns in political negotiations spurred by the interests of extremists.”

Others, however, said the bill includes “small but significant changes,” such as granting work permits and protections from deportation for children of H-1B visa holders.

The bill also includes the authorization of an additional 250,000 immigrant visas over the next five fiscal years. Those visas would be split between family-based and employment-based visas.

“Those are important because when we think about border security and border policy, it’s important that we pair enforcement with legal immigration reforms,” said Laura Collins, Director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative in Dallas. “To make the system work better, the two have to work together.”

Collins said she’s concerned about the proposed restrictions to the asylum process and how those will be carried out. For example, the bill would make it more difficult for migrants to pass the so-called “credible fear” factor when applying for asylum.

“We have so little control as a country over the conditions that drive people from their homes,” she said. “And so the provisions that are being put in place really should be viewed more as management features and not necessarily as deterrence.”

Collins explained that these features might not stop people from coming to the border but rather manage who the U.S. allows to stay here while their cases are being processed.

After release of the bill, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkus described it as tough and fair and that it “takes meaningful steps to address the challenges our country faces after decades of Congressional inaction.”

A vote on the bill is expected to take place in the Senate later this week before moving to the House. But some lawmakers have warned it may not survive a vote without some changes to it.

Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.