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Turning their backs on Ukraine, and asylum-seekers

The failed border deal is full of betrayals.

A Border Patrol agent asked asylum-seeking migrants to line up in a makeshift, mountainous campsite after the group crossed the border with Mexico last week near Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Democrats agreed to the ransom. But Republicans are determined to shoot the hostages anyway.

GOP lawmakers in Washington made the unconscionable demand for draconian measures at the border in exchange for funding that would help Ukraine fight off Russia’s continued onslaught. After months of negotiations, Democrats agreed to almost all of the GOP’s demands, essentially selling out asylum-seekers to avoid selling out a nation desperately trying to hold at bay autocratic megalomaniac Vladimir Putin.

The deal fell apart, of course, not because Republicans didn’t get what they wanted, but because they did. They don’t want to take immigration off the table as an election issue, given that they have little else to run on. Also because some of them really are on Putin’s side here. So they refused to take yes for an answer.

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But Ukrainians aren’t the only casualties of the collapsed deal. In agreeing to the Republicans’ terms and enacting restrictions that would impose stricter border regulations than we have seen in many years, Democrats have ceded the terms of the debate over immigration, making meaningful reform harder than ever. They’re even talking like Republicans. In the first year of his presidency, Joe Biden was pushing for a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Now, with cities straining under an influx of new arrivals, and political pressure building, he vowed to “shut down the border right now,” if Republicans would agree to the legislation.

“It really is reframing the entire debate,” said Sarang Sekhavat, chief of staff for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “The negotiation has shifted so much in one direction and the rhetoric we’re hearing, even from the White House ... is frankly disturbing.”

The measure initially backed by senators from both parties would have made asylum claims much more difficult, even impossible, for many seeking refuge, beefing up enforcement, detention, and deportation while allowing the government to turn people away without due process if the average number of crossings exceeded 5,000 per day. It was backed by the Border Patrol union, for heaven’s sake.

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“It moves the goalpost for what is acceptable and negotiable in an unconscionable way,” said Jill Seeber, head of the MABEL Center for Immigrant Justice.

On the other hand, the bill would have provided funding for more judges to clear court backlogs, and would have enabled some immigrants to get work permits faster. But the package was no 50-50 compromise. Republicans cleaned Democrats’ clocks.

For example, the bill would have left Dreamers — those whose parents brought them to this country when they were children — high and dry, even though a large majority of Americans support granting them legal status.

It is just gobsmacking that Democrats walked away from them, in particular. And what do they have to show for that betrayal?

Sure, the whole debacle has exposed the GOP as utterly beholden to former president Donald Trump, who demanded the bill be scuttled to avoid giving Biden a win. Yes, it exposes as utterly hollow their claims of wanting to fix the crisis at the border. But that will hardly turn off their voter base, who behave ever more like a cult these days.

Biden’s new, tough rhetoric certainly won’t draw them away from the GOP. And especially not from Trump. Instead, the Democrats who supported the border bill are in danger of alienating those who thought they could trust the party when it came to immigration policy.

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Sekhavat, of MIRA, says the betrayal goes further than that.

“It goes back on values that, once upon a time, we were trying to spread to the rest of the world,” Sekhavat said.

Make no mistake here: Republicans are the ones who are refusing to give life-saving aid to Ukraine, are cynically using desperate souls rushing across our border to win political points, and are utterly unmoved by the suffering of either group of people. They’re the ones who pushed for the cruel provisions in the border bill, and who tipped over the card table when Biden called their bluff, revealing their breathtaking, destructive cynicism.

But Democrats have not covered themselves in glory here. Even a dead bill can do harm. And this one has.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.