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November 30, 2023

Chris Murphy involved in border talks as Congress seeks to pass aid

COURTESY / OFFICE OF SEN. CHRIS MURPHY U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy during a January trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. Murphy is a key player in trying to iron out a border deal in Congress.

For weeks, Congress has been eyeing passage of President Joe Biden’s national security package with major financial assistance for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific region and humanitarian efforts in Gaza.

But congressional Republicans, who have grown more resistant to additional funding for Ukraine, are tying their support for the aid package to securing long-sought-after immigration and border changes. 

That led Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and a small group of other Democratic and Republican negotiators to try and see if there is a viable path forward on an issue that has long eluded Congress.

Murphy and negotiators acknowledge the fraught nature of getting an immigration deal done quickly. They are facing resistance from members of both parties and some immigrant rights groups. Plus, they are short on time with the holidays approaching and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., promising a vote on the aid package next week, whether a deal comes together or not.

While talks are ongoing, Murphy on Wednesday voiced less optimism about wrapping up negotiations before the end of the week. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who is the lead GOP negotiator, said they are still operating on the same timeline, trying to wrap up in the next few days “as much as possible.”

“It may be that we won’t be able to come to a deal because Republicans are being unreasonable, but we’ll do our best to find a proposal that respects both Republican and Democratic priorities,” Murphy said.

“I’m not happy about being in the room. I’m not happy about the position Republicans have put us in,” he continued. “I’m just trying to figure out if there’s a pathway to come with a compromise that is good for Republicans and Democrats.”

The details of a possible agreement are still a bit hazy. Murphy has been relatively mum on the discussions and has not publicly indicated what priorities are on or off the table, like a path to citizenship for those who were illegally brought to the U.S. when they were children and were protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Republicans have been reportedly pushing for changes to asylum policy and the authority for the administration to temporarily allow some migrants into the U.S.

A group of 11 Democratic senators have taken issue with talk of raising the standard of “credible fear of persecution” for asylum seekers. They argue that any agreement struck on immigration reforms should also include a path to citizenship and legal protections for Dreamers.

“Using a one-time spending package to enact these unrelated permanent policy changes sets a dangerous precedent and risks assistance to our international partners,” the group said in a joint statement. “Any proposal considering permanent changes to our asylum and immigration system needs to include a clear path to legalization for long-standing undocumented immigrants.”

In response to criticism from Democratic colleagues, Murphy said negotiators have not accepted any deals on asylum changes and nothing has been agreed to so far on that issue.

And when asked if Democrats will get anything out of the deal other than securing funding for Ukraine, Murphy said he has told Republicans that the agreement will need to be “balanced.” But it is not yet clear what border-related provisions Democrats could get.

“It reinforces for Republicans that they’re not going to get everything they want. I’ve told them from the beginning this has got to be a narrow, targeted package with things that Democrats care about, and they’re hearing loud and clear from my colleagues that this package has to be balanced.”

Murphy is no stranger to working in groups of bipartisan negotiators. He was the lead negotiator on gun safety measures that culminated in the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act last year.

But he is newer to negotiations over immigration policy that have long vexed Congress. The Senate passed a compromise immigration bill in 2013 before it lost steam in the House and did not get a vote.

“One thing I did learn [from gun safety talks] is that I’m better off saying nothing about the details of negotiations as a means to try to make sure that we make progress,” Murphy said in an interview on Tuesday.

In January, Murphy joined bipartisan group of senators — some of whom are part of the current negotiating team — on a trip to learn more about the U.S.-Mexico border and the potential for future compromise.

“Connecticut is not a border state, but there is no doubt that a lack of order at the border affects us in Connecticut,” Murphy said at the time. “When you have that large a number of migrants coming in an unplanned way, it also stresses out social services at the border but also throughout the country.”

Schumer, a member of the “Gang of Eight” lawmakers who negotiated the immigration bill in 2013, said he is hopeful for a bipartisan bill. But he said he will move forward with Biden’s national security supplemental package regardless because of the urgent need for aid for countries in conflicts.

Republicans have been mostly aligned with the need for emergency national security aid, especially for Israel. But with Ukraine becoming a bigger sticking point, they want all of their funding priorities moving together in one piece of legislation.

“I called the president last week to make sure he understood that there wouldn’t be a bill without a credible effort to get on top of our disastrous southern border situation,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has been one of the biggest GOP proponents for Ukraine aid. “This has to be a part of it.”

But even Republican support is not guaranteed. Conservative group Heritage Action for America is urging members to reject any deal that emerges and reaffirmed support for the GOP’s border security bill that passed the House in May but faces tough odds in the Senate.

And the border talks have also fueled some frustrations from immigration rights advocates. They argue that they are worried about the precedent of making permanent changes to immigration policy through legislation meant for temporary funding.

“Democrats shouldn’t reward MAGA extremism, brinkmanship and this attempt to make permanent policy changes via a short-term funding vehicle,” Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, said in a statement. “There are other options on the table that would actually help improve our system, such as resourcing our asylum system, getting more work permits so people can get to work quickly, and aiding border communities and other cities.”

Other concerns have emerged about the bipartisan talks, including the makeup of the group.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a Cuban American who was part of the 2013 negotiating group on immigration legislation, bemoaned the lack of involvement from Latino senators in the Democratic Party. He was one of the 11 senators who signed onto the joint statement about concerns of the border talks.

Menendez is facing federal bribery charges as well as calls for his resignation from Democratic colleagues, including Murphy.

“Part of the problem here is you have people negotiating who either aren’t from border states or aren’t from the immigrant community,” Menendez told reporters on Wednesday. “We have four Hispanic Americans in the Senate on the Democratic side. None of us are involved in these negotiations. That would be like having civil rights or voting rights legislation being negotiated by people when you have three [Democratic] African American senators.”

When asked about the extent of involvement from Latino senators in these talks, Murphy said it is “a very small group” but he has been “in constant contact” with lawmakers who are part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

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