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Border spike leaves Biden facing political jeopardy, financial squeeze

President Biden has started the new year facing intensifying political and financial pressure at the U.S.-Mexico border as his administration tries to land a funding deal with Republicans galvanized by another record influx of migrants last month.

U.S. agents recorded nearly 250,000 illegal crossings along the southern border in December, the highest one-month total ever, according to preliminary Customs and Border Protection data obtained by The Washington Post. That is twice the volume of arrivals CBP is budgeted to handle, according to agency officials.

Biden administration officials have responded by again asking the Mexican government to tighten enforcement, and say the country’s latest efforts have helped reduce illegal crossings over the past week. But several of the broader policy changes Biden officials have considered to curb migration are tied up in negotiations with Republicans over nearly $14 billion in additional funding for border operations and the U.S. immigration court system.

“The administration now has a real incentive to make a deal,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan D.C. think tank. “There’s a lot of pressure to bring the numbers down in an election year and reduce the impact on cities around the country.”

GOP leaders believe they hold the upper hand heading into the November election. Polls show voters trust Republicans to handle immigration and border management better than Democrats, a view reinforced by images of chaos and disorder when crossings periodically spike.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) traveled with a group of about 60 Republican lawmakers to the U.S.-Mexico border Wednesday to ramp up criticism of Biden’s immigration record and push for steeper policy concessions from the White House.

The delegation went to the border in Eagle Pass, Tex., where thousands of migrants waded across the Rio Grande last month, spending chilly nights in an outdoor holding area set up by overstretched Border Patrol agents.

Johnson told reporters it was “a disaster of the president’s own design,” blaming Biden’s moves to roll back former president Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

“If President Biden wants a supplemental spending bill focused on national security, it better begin by defending America’s national security,” Johnson said.

Some Republicans went further in their calls demanding immediate action from the administration, suggesting that the House should shut down the government amid two looming deadlines if Democrats do not agree to their policy demands.

“None of us want to shut down the government, but we all recognize the fact that every single penny that we are giving to Homeland Security at this point is not being used to secure the border,” said Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-Tex.).

Johnson skirted questions about whether House Republicans would shut down parts of the government as soon as mid-January, instead stressing that securing the border and reducing non-discretionary spending are top goals this year.

Many of the migrants who were released from U.S. custody with pending claims in U.S. immigration courts are starting to arrive to cities such as Denver, Chicago and New York, where shelters are already maxed out and Democratic mayors are demanding more federal aid. Officials in Denver moved to clear a migrant tent camp Wednesday, where 400 people have been sleeping on the streets.

The crowded conditions bring heightened risk of respiratory infections and illness during the winter months. Officials in Chicago are investigating the death of a 5-year-old boy last month who was staying in one of the city’s packed shelters.

Thomas S. Warrick, a former DHS official who is now a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Atlantic Council, said the cash injection is “absolutely vital” to keep the U.S. immigration system from further breakdown.

“A system that was already under enormous strain is now stretched to the point where even the most basic legal and humanitarian requirements can’t be met,” Warrick said.

The Trump administration received $4.6 billion in supplemental border funding in 2019 when border capacity and budgets were stretched by then-record numbers of migrant families, he said. “Just as the Trump administration got a supplemental [funding bill] passed in 2019, this administration needs to pass one in 2024,” Warrick said.

The policy changes sought by Republicans are designed to boost deportations and expand immigration detention, both of which will require a major injection of federal dollars, he said.

A bipartisan group of senators is engaged in negotiations that would unlock the supplemental funds by implementing enforcement measures sought by Republicans. The White House request is part of a larger $106 billion aid package to Ukraine and Israel.

Republican lawmakers in the House say the measures under discussion in the Senate don’t go far enough. The group that traveled to the border Wednesday visited the district of Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Tex.), an architect of the House GOP’s border security bill, which includes provisions that Democrats have described as nonstarters.

The group included House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) who has launched impeachment proceedings against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, blaming him for the border influx.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre criticized House Republicans on Wednesday for focusing on impeachment proceedings against Mayorkas.

“They’re wasting their time on impeachment proceedings that make no sense,” she said. “It’s a political stunt. It’s baseless.”

“We need more resources,” Jean-Pierre said. “House Republicans keep getting in the way of doing the work to deal with what we’re seeing at the border,” she said.

Jean-Pierre downplayed the record number of migrants who crossed the border in December. “Every year we see an ebb and flow and that’s what we’re seeing at this time,” she said.

The 6 million-plus illegal crossings recorded since Biden took office is the busiest span in the 100-year history of the U.S. Border Patrol, government records show.

Biden administration officials declined to say what specific measures Mexico has taken to reduce crossings over the past several days, referring reporters to Mexican authorities.

One Mexican official said the country’s national guard is doing more to support Mexico’s immigration enforcement agency — which has suffered major budget cuts — and Mexican officials have restarted direct deportation flights to Venezuela. About 500,000 Venezuelans have arrived in the United States via Mexico over the past three years.

The Mexican official, who was not authorized to speak to reporters, described the measures on the condition of anonymity.

Last week, Biden sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Mayorkas and White House homeland security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall to Mexico City to urge Mexican officials to do more to slow the volume of people arriving at the U.S. border.

About 2,500 migrants were taken into custody by U.S. agents on New Year’s Day, according to one of the Biden officials who spoke to reporters Tuesday, down from about 10,000 taken into custody per day in December. The official said crossings also dropped abruptly at holiday times during previous years, only to rebound in January.

On Capitol Hill, discussions among a bipartisan group of senators over new border measures resumed Tuesday after a holiday break. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) met with Mayorkas in the Capitol.

The group had hoped to strike a deal and provide legislative text by next week in order for the Senate to move quickly on the bill before being overtaken by an all-consuming deadline to fund large parts of the federal government later in January.

The senators are negotiating over narrowing the pool of people eligible to apply for asylum as well as limiting the president’s power to offer humanitarian parole to categories of migrants, according to Senate aides briefed on the discussions.

Also under discussion: a mechanism to effectively shut the border during days with particularly high crossings, speeding up deportations for those who lose their immigration cases and other immigration policy changes.

House Republicans, including the speaker, have called for stricter, more punitive measures that Biden officials and many Democrats say they will not accept. Days before the Christmas holiday, Johnson urged Biden to use his executive action authority to curb the record border crossings since the Senate had adjourned for the year without a deal.

House Republicans have not been part of ongoing negotiations, instead uniting around their demand for the Senate to pass their border security proposal, which was approved on a mostly party-line vote last spring. Among other things, the House GOP bill would provide funding to restart the building of a border wall, curb the president’s ability to allow entry for migrants who do not qualify for visas and make sweeping changes to asylum eligibility.

By heading to the border days into the new year, the House delegation looks to capitalize on that momentum ahead of an expected grueling election season, in which the Republicans’ narrow House majority will be at stake.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Wednesday that GOP members need to keep negotiating.

“It’s very nice that they have a trip to the border,” Schumer said. “But the only way to solve this is here, working in a bipartisan way with Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats and House Democrats to get it done, period.”

Matt Viser and Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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