Sen. Chris Murphy, a lead negotiator on the recent border bill, spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday when it became clear that after months spent hammering out an agreement, his Republican colleagues would not allow the measure to move forward for debate.
Murphy called the about-face by the Republican leadership “unbelievable,” attributing the rejection of the bill to former President Donald Trump, who publicly called the agreement a “great gift to the Democrats, and a death wish for the Republican Party,” urging Republicans to reject the bill, for being too weak.
The agreement would have capped the number of asylum seekers entering the country to no more than 8,500 in a day, or a daily average of 5,000, while significantly streamlining consideration of their cases and raising the bar for successful consideration.
Currently, asylum seekers are allowed to enter the country while their cases are being considered, a process that can take years.
“I believe the asylum system is broken,” Murphy said on Tuesday. “And my constituents, whether they be right or left, believe the asylum system is broken. It shouldn’t take 10 years to process an asylum claim, especially when the majority of those asylum claims are ultimately rejected.”
According to data from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, there were roughly 300,000 “southwest land border encounters” in December alone. That same month, about 190,000 of 250,000 migrants who the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended at the border were released into the country pending the adjudication of their cases.
A mix of reactions from the left and the right
Connecticut organizations and experts who spoke to CT Examiner before the bill’s demise expressed a variety of opinions and concerns about the proposal, while expressing a desire to see changes to the current immigration system.
Jon Bauer, a professor at UConn Law School and director of the school’s Asylum and Human Rights Clinic, compared the proposed border closures to Title 42, a pandemic-era restriction that allowed the government to turn migrants away on the pretense of a public health emergency.
“By providing mechanisms to turn people away without any serious opportunity to present an asylum claim, it creates a high risk that people will be sent back to situations where they’re in great danger,” Bauer said.
Beyond the danger of possible persecution in their home countries, he said, migrants who are forced to cross the border and remain in northern Mexico risk being victims of gangs and drug cartels. Migrants turned back in the past, he said, faced extortion, kidnapping, rape and torture.
David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, a right-leaning libertarian think tank, criticized the idea of intermittent border shutdowns for a different reason — the confusion they would cause.
“People are going to show up, they’re not going to know what the policy is on any given day. There’s no requirement that it be publicly announced when it’s in effect or when it’s not in effect,” Bier said. “I just think it’s a recipe for disaster, and it’s really no different than what we saw under Title 42 for three years.”
Bier added that the policy would encourage people who were sent back to Mexico to keep trying to cross the border illegally.
Barbara Lopez, executive director of Make the Road Connecticut, was also concerned about the fairness of a first-come, first-serve approach at the border — the bill said that even when the border was closed, the government would have to process 1,400 applicants daily.
“That really throws people into a bit of an ‘asylum lottery,’ for you to have access to asylum, based on if you’re within the first 1,400 that reach the border on a given day,” she said.
Make the Road Connecticut was one of 60 Connecticut organizations who wrote a letter to Murphy asking that he not support the proposed bill.
Lopez said her organization had spoken with Murphy, telling him they would not support any legislation that expedited removal or made it more difficult to seek asylum. She said she was concerned about the consequences of the bill on immigrants living in Connecticut.
“We don’t want our families to go back to the shadows. And what I mean by that is, be fearful to go to school, to go to work, to go to church, self-deport. Deportation proceedings can be heightened and folks can get stopped while doing routine stuff. So this really would set the tone of … the quality of life that [immigrants and asylum seekers] will be able to have,” Lopez said.
Bauer was also concerned about provisions in the bill that would have raised the level of proof for migrants seeking asylum, and another requiring asylum claims to be processed within 90 days — a time period that Bauer said might prevent migrants from obtaining legal assistance and put together a strong case.
“They will need to convince an asylum officer that there is a reasonable possibility they will be persecuted if they’re sent back. And this is before they have a chance to gather evidence,” Bauer said. “It can come at a time when they’re still kind of worn out from their trip to the United States. It’s hard for people at this stage to effectively present evidence or articulate their claims.”
Bier further criticized the proposal to run the asylum system through the Department of Homeland Security, saying it wasn’t prepared to manage the high number of asylum claims.
“They are so far from being able to accomplish their objectives already. I mean, that office has a backlog of a million cases already, and most of those cases are people who didn’t cross the border illegally,” he said. “It’s just totally impossible that this is going to be effectuated anytime this decade.”
The bill included about $4 million to hire new asylum officers, but Bier said the problem wasn’t the funds — it was finding people willing to do the job.
“This is a specialized position. It takes a certain type of person who wants to hear people’s stories of being victimized all day,” he said. “This is a niche where the people who are most qualified to do it — immigration attorneys and stuff like that — there are a lot of other job opportunities out there for those people that pay more, that have better conditions than being an asylum officer.”
Connecticut-based organizations who work with immigrants said they were pleased with certain provisions of the bill, such as requiring legal representation for unaccompanied children under the age of 13. Susan Schnitzer, the executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, said this was a welcome change made to the original bill.
Schnitzer said her organization, which provides a variety of professional and social services to immigrants and refugees, was seeing an increase in the number of unaccompanied minors — a pattern she said was replicating across the country.
“We are definitely seeing a lot more folks who we believe have come up over the southern border, a lot of asylum seekers,” said Schnitzer, adding that the organization did not currently have the capacity to provide legal representation for all of them. People are currently waiting two to three months for legal services, she said.
Schnitzer said the majority of refugees coming through the agency are from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the majority of unaccompanied minors and people seeking legal services are from Central and South America.
However, Schnitzer expressed clear approval for the part of the bill that expedited work authorizations for migrants entering the country. Currently, she said, it takes an average of 15 months to get a work authorization approved.
“There are some misconceptions that people coming into the U.S. don’t want to work. We don’t see that. People want to work,” she said. “That would benefit our newcomers, that would benefit our industry, our business. And we are 100 percent supportive of that happening.”
The inclusion of a new permanent resident status for Afghan refugees was also widely lauded.
“We need to get them out of the limbo statuses that they’re in and get them some kind of permanent status so they can know that they can start building their lives here,” Bier said.
In a New York Times op-ed, Bier said the best way to address immigration is to expand the parole sponsorship programs so people can cross legally. The U.S. currently has sponsorship programs for five countries — Ukraine, Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua — but the cap on the program is far below demand, and excludes several countries from which the U.S. is seeing the largest influx of illegal immigration.
“Have an alternative process for people so they can enter legally, and orderly, and safely, and without having to expend all these resources on them,” he told CT Examiner. “And then, when they get here, they’ll have lined up housing and jobs and be able to work legally and support themselves and resolve a lot of the problems that we’ve seen in the interior of the United States.”
Bauer said he’d like to see the outcome of the government hiring more asylum officers and immigration judges.
“The system as we have it could work effectively if there were enough personnel to process the cases without the huge backlog we have right now,” he said.