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OPINION

What’s behind the congressional fight over Ukraine and immigration

When Biden tied the new Ukraine aid to border security funds in his spending package, he also opened the door for Republicans to demand unreasonable measures about immigration.

A group of people walk along the border wall near Jacumba, Calif., after crossing the border with Mexico to seek asylum on Oct. 24.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

During the past several weeks, Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress have been negotiating a compromise that would unlock tens of billions of dollars of additional war aid to Ukraine in exchange for tougher border security.

It’s now become a significant, high-profile fight over a deal that would have big domestic implications. But it would be a mistake for Democrats to give in to the unreasonable demands that Republicans are making in exchange for the aid to Ukraine.

How did we get here? The funds to support Ukraine are included in a supplemental emergency funding request that President Biden sent to Congress in October totaling nearly $106 billion. The request also includes foreign aid to Israel and Taiwan as well as $14 billion for national security; specifically, to manage the migrant flows at the US-Mexico border. That money would be spent on hiring additional law enforcement officers and expanding immigration detention, among other measures to bolster the border.

That sounds sensible, right? But what has happened since Biden’s request is that Republicans have tacked on more conditions. Their leverage is the military aid to Ukraine, which Biden and his party are committed to but has become less and less popular among Americans, especially among Republicans.

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When Biden tied the new Ukraine aid to border security funds in his spending package, he also opened the door for Republicans to demand unreasonable measures about immigration. It’s one thing to make this fight about money. But Republicans don’t want modest immigration reform — they want dramatic policy changes with big domestic implications as a condition to approve foreign aid in a one-time bill.

Reportedly, GOP lawmakers want to enact reforms to the asylum system, such as elevating the bar for who is admitted as an asylee and restricting the government’s use of humanitarian parole, the program that has allowed the Biden administration to welcome tens of thousands of migrants fleeing authoritarian governments and civil unrest.

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These are longstanding legal pathways to immigration that have nothing to do with national security or foreign aid. Getting rid of them would be a terrible mistake. A report by the nonprofit FWD.us found that nearly half a million paroled adults who entered the United States in 2021 and 2022 had a positive impact on the economy by helping address labor shortages and control inflation.

What’s really shaping these negotiations in Congress is the politics of the 2024 presidential election. That is why we’ve seen a sudden shift in the traditional formula for an immigration compromise in Congress. For years, that formula has been predictable: More border security plus citizenship for “Dreamers” (sometimes referred to as the low-hanging fruit of immigration reform) equals support from both sides.

The underlying problem with this equation has always been that one side is pretty specific — citizenship for a limited universe of folks — and the other side isn’t. See, the concept of “border security” has become so abstract and amorphous that it now has different meanings depending on who you ask. For the average person, having a safe and secure border makes perfect sense. But what exactly does that mean? More money to hire additional border patrol officers and personnel? Actually building a wall? Access to drones and better technology to improve surveillance of the territory between points of entry? More military equipment? Or is it detaining migrants showing up at the border asking for refuge?

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Apparently, it’s all of that and more. “Border security” has become a spectrum of measures, which has allowed Republicans to control the conversation and keep moving the goalposts. A year ago, a bipartisan deal that would have given Dreamers a path to citizenship fell apart in Congress but came close to the finish line. That’s not even on the table in the current negotiations. Instead, Republicans are talking about eliminating humanitarian parole but are still calling it “border security.”

The current deal allows Republicans — and the party’s leading presidential candidate, former president Donald Trump — to show that they are tough and tougher at the border, an issue that is of utmost importance to their base. But it also serves Biden and his party, or so the thinking goes. There is a growing number of Democrats who are willing to accept the tougher restrictions on asylum and parole in a compromise because they believe that will help them in battleground states next year.

The irony is that restricting asylum and removing parole would actually create more chaos at the border, which would undermine, not strengthen, border security. That would help Trump and the GOP. In other words, this deal is yet another trick that Republicans want to play on Democrats.





Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.