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The proposal would speed up the process of determining if a person qualifies for asylum in an effort to put an end to “migrants who can't work sleeping on the streets or crowding homeless shelters.”
Updated at 6:30 p.m. on 2/5/24
While its chances of passing Congress are highly uncertain, bipartisan Senate negotiators released a $118.2 billion proposal Sunday night that would provide more than a billion dollars in emergency funding for cities that are struggling to house the millions of asylum-seekers who have entered the U.S.
The proposal, which includes $60 billion for Ukraine and $14.1 billion for Israel, would provide up to another $1.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s shelter and services program. The funding will be used by “non-federal entities” to aid asylum-seekers by providing “sheltering and other eligible services to noncitizen migrants.”
In addition, it would give $2.3 billion to the Health and Human Services department for ‘‘refugee and entrant assistance,’ including Ukrainians. According to the proposal, the money, available through September of 2025, can be used for “culturally and linguistically appropriate services, including wraparound services, housing assistance, medical assistance, legal assistance and case management assistance.”
The proposal also includes $100 million for FEMA Operation Stonegarden grants to increase law enforcement in border state and local governments
The nation’s mayors had said they wanted more than the $1.4 billion proposed by President Joe Biden. Still, Mesa, Arizona, Mayor John Giles and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said in a joint statement Monday that they “strongly support the two-pronged solution of new policy reforms and funding in this border package.”
The co-chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ immigration reform task force said the proposal would “provide our cities with resources to help support asylum-seekers living in our communities and set them on a path to self-sufficiency through reforms to the work authorization process.
After weeks of negotiations, senators are proposing major changes in immigration, including detaining more migrants and more quickly determining if they qualify for asylum, instead of allowing a person to live in the country for years while awaiting a decision on their citizenship.
The proposal would address another key concern for mayors by allowing more asylum-seekers to work. Mayors have said a current restriction puts more pressure on local governments to care for them because they cannot earn money.
According to the bill, the changes “will end the asylum backlog and ensure that aliens whose claims do not have merit are deported weeks to months after crossing the border—not years, decades or never.”
The Department of Homeland Security would be authorized to shut down the border if 8,500 people, or an average of 5,000 a day over a week, try to enter the country.
Between October and January, more than 954,000 noncitizens crossed the southern border, with a vast majority being allowed to enter the country and wait up to a decade to see if they are granted asylum. Had the proposed rules been in place, the senators said, only 200,000 would have entered the country.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Independent who helped craft the proposal, said it was a “big deal” that local officials in border states support the proposal.
She said it is "her hope" that the “crisis should decrease rapidly” because of the higher standards that would be put in place for allowing migrants to enter the country.
In a statement Sunday night, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who was the lead Democrat in the negotiations, said the changes in the proposal would address local governments concerns that current law bars asylum-seekers who enter the U.S. from working for 180 days. Mayors have said lifting the requirement would allow migrants to feed and clothe themselves, easing some of the pressure on local governments to care for them.
The changes “would mean we won't have migrants who can't work sleeping on the streets or crowding homeless shelters,” Murphy said.
Under current law, those who try to come into the U.S. at a point of entry and are allowed in because they face a “credible fear of persecution” are allowed to work. Others that come across away from a point of entry are not allowed to work for 180 days after they file for asylum.
The proposal would raise the standard for those encountered away from points of entry, which is angering pro-immigration groups. While the bill would provide funding for more immigration officials to quicken the process, it will reduce the number of migrants allowed into the country.
The proposal, however, also creates another path, in which immigration officials would have the option to allow asylum-seekers into the country. They will not be allowed to work, but if they are approved after a screening within 90 days that they are in danger, they would be able to work.
As a result, local governments could be aided if the proposal passes because it would lower the number of migrants coming to their cities and allow more to work.
“Right now we have a federal government standing in the way of those employees who want to work for those employers who want to hire them,” said Denver Mayor Mike Johnston at a press conference at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting in Washington, D.C., last month. “We have employers every day who will call us and say, ‘I see there are folks here who need jobs. I have open jobs. Can I please hire them?’” Johnson said.
Dealing with the surge of asylum-seekers has caused conflicts between different parts of the country, particularly as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has loaded more than 100,000 migrants onto buses destined for Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and Philadelphia under Texas’ Operation Lone Star program.
Saying they needed “more help to provide them food, housing, services and access to employment,” a bipartisan group of 139 mayors urged Congress in November to approve $1.4 billion in support for local governments proposed by President Joe Biden.
The issue was a major one when the heads of cities gathered in Washington, D.C., last month.
Gloria of San Diego said at the press conference that his city has been housing migrants in a former elementary school. Multiple nonprofits are working to find places where they can stay, he said. “How can we get them to something better than a tent on the sidewalk?”
Due to federal inaction, Gloria continued, “it’s falling on our watch. Cities are filling in those gaps. It's not sustainable. We need federal action.”
A spokesperson for New York City Mayor Eric Adams told Route Fifty last month the city has spent $3.1 billion between April 2022 and last November and has opened 216 sites to shelter migrants. The city expects to spend another $12 billion over the next three years unless the federal government addresses the issue.
The proposal negotiated by senators Murphy, Oklahoma Republican James Lankford and Sinema is now expected to come to a vote in the Senate.
“It will take bipartisan cooperation to move quickly. Senators must shut out the noise from those who want this agreement to fail for their own political agendas,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a statement Sunday night.
However, House Speaker Mike Johnson declared in a joint statement with Majority Whip Steve Scalise on X, formerly Twitter, that the proposal was “DEAD on arrival in the House.
Democrats also assailed the proposal as going too far to limit immigration. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, called it “an unacceptable deal.”
House Republicans released their own proposal on Saturday that would provide $17.6 billion for Israel and the U.S. military in the conflict with Hamas, but does not include funding for the border or for Ukraine. The conservative House Freedom Caucus opposed the proposal on Sunday because it would increase federal spending.
Some conservatives have also opposed providing more funding for cities, saying it would cover up the impacts of the inability of the Biden administration to adequately address the issue.
“Hell no,” Austin Livingston, spokesperson and deputy chief of staff for South Carolina Republican Rep. Ralph Norman, told Route Fifty last month when asked if the member of the conservative Freedom Caucus would support sending more than a billion dollars to cities.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @Kery_Murakami