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Biden weighs border deal — altering asylum law for Ukraine aid

Top Biden officials are preparing Democratic lawmakers and immigration policy advocates for the likelihood the administration will have to swallow compromises on asylum law in order for the president’s national security funding request to pass.

In calls with those lawmakers and advocates in recent weeks, officials from the White House and Department of Homeland Security floated potential changes as a means of winning over Republicans opposed to aid for Ukraine, according to four people familiar with the talks.

The outreach illustrates how challenging the coming days will be for the White House as it tries to move a $106 billion supplemental aid package that includes money for Ukraine, Israel, the southern border and Taiwan. Republicans have insisted that any large-scale plan include border policy changes as well. In the process, they have placed a political lighting rod of an issue squarely into the biggest legislative matter before Congress — and forced the White House to balance competing interests.

A former administration official familiar with the discussions, who was granted anonymity to discuss private conversations, said the White House’s openness to asylum reform “was a huge substantive risk, and political one.”

“It could get ugly,” the person added.

While the administration has begun broaching the contours of a possible immigration policy compromise, similar movement is harder to detect on the Hill. Democratic lawmakers have resisted engaging in talks over what concessions they would make before Republicans detail what concrete policy asks they have, even as they express a willingness to talk.

“I think it’s hard to do those things fast, right, without having a whole lot of unnecessary consequences,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “But we got to be open to the discussions.”

But in broad strokes, Democrats have also discussed asylum policy changes as a place of possible overlapping legislative interest. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the Senate Homeland Security Committee chair, said “the process of asylum is clearly something that needs to be looked at,” while Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), another member of Homeland Security, said “the judicial process and the timing” of asylum should be considered.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday emphasized the need for Congress to move forward with Biden’s supplemental request, which the administration views as the best way to manage border security needs.

“We’ve been very clear, if Republicans are serious about dealing with border security, this is something that they should move forward with — easily. Easily. But what we’ve seen them do over and over again is play political games,” she said.

The specific asylum reform that has come up in private conversations with administration officials, according to people familiar with them, is a change to the credible fear standard. Under current law, if a migrant is subject to expedited removal and put through the credible fear process, that person is required to show a “significant possibility” of credible fear of persecution, torture or fear returning to their country. A tweak to the law’s language could in theory mean fewer migrants hitting the credible fear threshold and, therefore, more being denied the opportunity to apply for asylum.

It is unlikely that such a change would placate Republicans, who are floating proposals such as reimplementing Remain in Mexico — a Trump-era policy that forced migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims were processed — alongside other changes to asylum law.

“The second thing we’d like to see is changing the asylum claims standard, where you don’t have 21,000 people claiming asylum every three days. I think those are the two big issues, and there are a lot of other smaller issues that I think are going to come up in negotiations,” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) told POLITICO.

The administration’s move could, moreover, spark blowback among Democrats, including those who have accused the White House of lacking a humane approach to the border and migration. One person familiar with the talks told POLITICO that if the White House moves forward with pushing changes to asylum law without trying to secure progress on something like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, immigration advocates would likely denounce the deal.

The insertion of immigration policy into the debate around the president’s supplemental request has already proven to be a magnet for elected officials looking for related, peripheral reforms.

A group of Democratic mayors descended Thursday on Washington to meet with White House and DHS officials — including White House chief of staff Jeff Zients and Office of Intergovernmental Affairs director Tom Perez — before later heading to the Hill to meet with Democratic senators. They met with Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Independent Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

As their cities manage an influx of migrants, they too, are hoping the imperative of passing Ukraine and Israel funding will help them move forward their own immigration asks — not only funding but policy changes that would allow migrants to work. The thinking among the mayors is that a sweet spot for the deal could be around adjusting asylum law in exchange for work authorization, all tied together with Ukraine and Israel funding.

“It’s pretty hard to ignore when both parties in Congress, the White House and mayors from major cities all agree that there needs to be resources and changes with regard to how we manage migration,” said another former administration official.

But where it quickly breaks down is what does that look like? And what are the specific policy changes?”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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