Republicans threaten to nix Ukraine aid unless Democrats agree to tighten immigration laws

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WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans released a proposal for tougher immigration laws Monday while issuing a warning to President Joe Biden that there will be no further Ukraine aid without stricter rules for being granted asylum in the U.S.

The one-page plan — written by GOP Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — calls for a wide variety of changes, including raising the “credible fear” standard for asylum-seekers, curtailing officials’ ability to grant humanitarian parole and toughening penalties for illegal border crossings.

The proposal was met with swift criticism from the White House and Democrats, who urged Republicans not to hold Ukraine funding hostage to a divisive domestic dispute that has bedeviled presidents and lawmakers for the last three decades.

While the proposal is essentially a negotiation tactic, Lankford said Democrats still “would have to” support tougher border laws for Republicans to approve Ukraine aid in the GOP-controlled House and in the Senate, where they wield filibuster power to block bills.

“We’re not going to try to secure other countries and not secure ours,” Lankford said. “For three years we’ve been saying: ‘When are we going to secure the country? When are we going to do this?’ And every year it’s gotten worse. … And the volume has reached loud enough that we’re saying, ‘Time out; we’ve got to be able to secure our own country while we’re working for the security of others.’”

Graham, an outspoken supporter of Ukraine who has worked with Democrats on immigration in the past, said there won’t be an aid package without including tougher asylum laws. He cited the sharp rise of claims for asylum in the U.S.

“We’re not going to get a package through that doesn’t get control of the border,” he said. “America’s a destination of choice, not a safety. … Something’s got to give.”

‘DACA is not border security’

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said it’s “really unfortunate that Republicans are tying the two together.”

“But I’m listening to my Republican colleagues,” he said, adding that there are “pieces of what they put on the table that we could have a conversation about” but that “there would also have to be some Democratic priorities, as well, on the table.”

One of those Democratic priorities is granting a path to American citizenship for so-called Dreamers — migrants brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children. But many Republicans oppose that idea, with some saying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, shouldn’t be included in the funding measure.

“DACA is not border security,” Lankford said. “This is a national security package.”

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., labeled the GOP immigration proposal “radical” and argued it “would eviscerate our asylum system, endangering families and children fleeing violence and persecution.”

White House spokesman Angelo Fernández Hernández said in a statement: “We disagree with many of the policies contained in the new Senate Republican border proposal. Further, we do not see anything in their proposal about creating an earned path to citizenship for Dreamers and others. Congress should fund the President’s supplemental request to secure the border now.”

The White House has requested funding for Israel and Ukraine in a single package, but House Republicans separated the two.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration, said the GOP proposal is “not a good starting point.”

“I am willing to talk to anyone on either side of the aisle who wants to move past the partisan bickering on this issue,” he said, “Let’s show the world that we can come together to fix our broken system — and let’s not hold critical Ukraine aid hostage in the process.”

‘We cannot let Putin win this thing’

The White House and many Democratic allies have warned that cutting off Ukraine aid would lead to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s winning the war and acquiring his neighbor’s sovereign territory.

The Republican-led House passed H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act of 2023, in May with only GOP support, and the White House threatened to veto it.

“A lot of that stuff comes right out of H.R. 2, which we have concerns over,” said Sen Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., whose state borders Mexico. “But this, obviously, is going to be a negotiation, and I very strongly feel that we have to support Ukraine. We cannot let Putin win this thing; that would be a colossal mistake.”

Lankford argued that the GOP senators took out the provisions in H.R. 2 that the White House was most opposed to.

Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., seemed open to the new GOP proposal, telling reporters: “We got to do something.”

“I think the basic of what you see, the final thing, will be very reasonable,” Manchin, who hails from a ruby-red state and is still considering whether to run for re-election next year, said after having spoken to Lankford. “And I think it’ll be even moderate compared to what a lot of Americans want right now.”

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., a conservative hard-liner, said Ukraine aid will fail in the House unless Biden agrees to pair it with tougher border laws that are enforceable with “handcuffs that make him abide by it” and can’t be waived.

But Democrats like Murphy worry that the new GOP wish list moves the debate further from a solution, not closer to one.

“I just want to make sure we get aid to Ukraine. I want to make sure that we do something to treat people humanely on the border. I don’t know whether those two things have any possibility of riding together,” Murphy said. “I don’t think that proposal Republicans put on the table today makes this easier. I think it makes it harder.”

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