Republicans in the House of Representatives have passed a sweeping bill to build more stretches of wall along the United States-Mexico border and impose new restrictions on asylum seekers, creating a hardline counter to President Joe Biden’s policies.
The legislation, passed on Thursday, advances to the Senate just as migrants and asylum seekers are amassing along the border with the end of COVID-19 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 legislation as “cruel” and “anti-immigrant”, and Biden has already promised he would veto it.
The legislation passed 219-213, with all present Democrats and two Republicans, Representatives Thomas Massie of Kentucky and John Duarte of California, voting against it.
House Republicans pointedly voted on the bill the same day as the expiration of Title 42, a public health emergency rule that allowed border authorities to quickly return many migrants and asylum seekers who crossed the border illegally.
Biden has conceded that the southern border will be “chaotic for a while”, as migrants and asylum seekers weigh whether to cross and US officials use a new set of policies 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 Republican legislators can say they did their part to deliver on a campaign promise to secure the border.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called the package “the strongest border security bill this country has ever seen”. In a speech on the House floor, he sought to contrast his party’s approach with that of the White House: “Meanwhile, we are seeing a very different record from President Biden.”
It took months, however, for Republicans to push the bill through the House amid sometimes public feuds between GOP politicians over the legislation. Even as the bill neared final form on Wednesday, it had to be amended to appease concerns from the House Freedom Caucus and other legislators.
The 213-page bill represents a compromise in the Republican conference between mainstream legislators, who wanted to focus on beefing up border enforcement, and hardline conservatives, who want to see drastic changes to US asylum and immigration law.
US and international law gives people the right to seek asylum from political, religious or racial persecution, but conservatives say many people take advantage of the system to live and work in the US while they wait for their refugee claim to be processed in court.
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 would-be refugees to cross legally, pay a $50 fee and meet more stringent requirements in initial interviews to show they have a credible fear of persecution in their home country.
“This extreme MAGA Republican piece of legislation will throw out children who are fleeing, in many cases, extreme violence and persecution,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the top House Democrat, said at a Thursday news conference.
“It will build a medieval border wall that is a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.”
The bill would also scrap a program that has allowed US officials to accept or quickly turn away some migrants and asylum seekers from Venezuela, Haiti and Nicaragua. The program is a cornerstone of Biden’s immigration efforts, allowing people from those countries to apply to come to the US for two years legally and work.
The unwieldy nature of immigration legislation has befuddled Congress for decades, but there is a growing conversation in the Senate on the issue.
A small group of House and Senate legislators hopes Thursday’s bill could give momentum for a separate package in the works that would incorporate aggressive border enforcement with expanded legal immigration through work visas, as well as potentially offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children.
“The bill that we’re getting, I think, is a good starting point,” said Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican. “It, by itself, would not get 60 votes to get out of here.”
Any final bill would need bipartisan support to pass the Senate and agreement from House Republicans on significant changes.
Some House legislators were already raising concerns about whether the farming industry would be disrupted by the bill’s requirement that agriculture businesses verify the immigration status of employees.
In explaining his vote against the bill, Duarte, who represents a district comprised of farmland in California’s Central Valley, said in a statement that the legislation would “harm many families that work in our Valley and create difficulties for our food producers”.
Massie, the other Republican to oppose the bill, made a libertarian argument against a system that tracks people’s immigration status.
Meanwhile, Senator Dick Durbin, the number-two Senate Democrat, is introducing legislation that would assist border officials and speed up the asylum application process.
And Tillis joined with Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent who accepts committee assignments from Democrats, to push a bill that would resurrect the government’s power to quickly expel refugee applicants without processing their asylum claims for another two years.
“It’s clear that the Biden administration, while it had two years to prepare for the end of Title 42, failed to do so,” Sinema told reporters.
“And in the last several weeks, I’ve had the unfortunate job of communicating on a daily basis, sometimes even hourly basis, with the sheriffs, the Border Patrol agents, mayors and even the governor of Arizona to figure out how we can prepare to deal with this crisis.”
Biden has received countless barbs from Congress but one Texas Republican who is key to immigration negotiations, Representative Tony Gonzales, is already thinking of how to get the president on board.
“Until the president of the United States signs a bill into law, all of this is theatre,” said Gonzales, who represents a large swathe of border country. “A lot of people are good at political theatre. Meanwhile, back in my district, we’re dealing with a real crisis.”