WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans are seeking Thursday to pass a sweeping bill to build more U.S.-Mexico border wall and impose new restrictions on asylum seekers, creating a hard-line counter to President Joe Biden's policies just as migrants are amassing along the border with the end of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
The bill has virtually no chance of becoming law. Democrats, who have a narrow hold on the Senate, have decried the aggressive measures in the bill as “cruel” and “anti-immigrant," and Biden has already promised he would veto it.
But the House GOP pointedly scheduled the vote for the same day as the expiration of Title 42, a public health emergency rule that allowed border authorities to quickly return many migrants who crossed the border illegally. Biden has conceded that the southern border will be “chaotic for a while” as migrants weigh whether to cross and U.S. officials use a new set of policies that aim to clamp down on illegal immigration while offering more legal pathways.
Republicans have sought to slam Biden for the increase in illegal immigration during his tenure. Passing the bill would ensure House GOP lawmakers can say they did their part to deliver on a campaign promise to secure the border.
“The Republicans actually have solutions,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters late Wednesday, expressing confidence the GOP could pass it on a party-line vote through the narrowly held House.
McCarthy, R-Calif., spoke for roughly 20 minutes late Wednesday from the House floor — a perch he uses only on occasion — to further press the point.
“This is President Biden’s record on the border: record crossings, record carelessness, record chaos,” the speaker said during his speech before exiting to hi-fives from the handful of GOP lawmakers present, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
It's taken months, however, for Republicans to push the bill to the House floor amid sometimes public feuds between GOP lawmakers over the legislation.
The 213-page bill represents a compromise in the Republican conference between mainstream lawmakers, who wanted to focus on beefing up border enforcement, and hardline conservatives, who want to see drastic changes to U.S. asylum and immigration law.
The package would return to many of the same policies pursued by former President Donald Trump, such as building walls along the border. It would also restrict asylum by requiring migrants to cross legally, pay a $50 fee and meet more stringent requirements to show in initial interviews that they are fleeing political, religious or racial persecution.
The bill proposes a scrap of a program that has allowed U.S. officials to accept or quickly turn away some migrants from Venezuela, Haiti and Nicaragua. The program is a cornerstone of Biden’s immigration efforts, allowing migrants from those countries to apply to come to the U.S. for two years legally and work.
But even as the legislation neared final form Wednesday, it had to be amended to appease concerns from the House Freedom Caucus and other lawmakers. They worried about the implications of handing the Department of Homeland Security the power to designate cartels as foreign terrorist organizations, as well as whether agricultural businesses would be disrupted by a separate provision requiring them to verify the immigration status of employees.
McCarthy huddled with a group of far-right lawmakers in the office of Rep. Tom Emmer, the Republican whip, Wednesday afternoon to win them over to the bill.
“Members had a chance to go through, deliberate, ask questions, have conversations,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican who was in the meeting.
House GOP leadership amended the legislation to smooth over the objections. But in a sign of how unwieldy the Republican conference has grown, the amendment angered another key lawmaker, Rep. Tony Gonzales.
The Texas Republican told reporters he voted against the amendment because it “waters down” the bill's provision to potentially treat cartels as terrorist organizations, but said he would ultimately vote to pass the final piece of legislation.
Gonzales has been working with a number of senators, including Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent, and Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, on a proposal that would incorporate aggressive border enforcement with expanding legal immigration through work visas.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Durbin, the no. 2 Senate Democrat, said Wednesday he plans to introduce legislation that would assist border officials and speed up the asylum application process.
“It is an opportunity to show the American people that we are not ignoring the reality and we can support our frontline officials from the communities that need help," Durbin said, adding that people are “tired of partisan bickering.”
Congress has not passed comprehensive immigration reform in decades, but Gonzales, who represents a large swath of border country, said he hopes the House bill could generate some momentum, even if it is wrapped in barbs for Biden.
“Until the president of the United States signs a bill into law, all of this is theater,” he said. “A lot of people are good at political theater. Meanwhile, back in my district, we’re dealing with a real crisis.”
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.