Senators struggle to find middle ground on immigration policy changes key to passing Ukraine-Israel aid

The key sticking point in border talks among US Senate negotiators remains how to handle an immigration authority that gives the administration broad discretion to allow certain migrants into the United States on a temporary basis.

The Biden administration has leaned on the so-called humanitarian parole authority in urgent situations, including to admit Afghans after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Ukrainians following Russia’s invasion. Other times, the administration has used the authority to allow migrants from designated countries to temporarily live and work in the US as a way of attempting to mitigate surges at the US-Mexico border.

But Republicans argue the administration is using the authority too broadly and are seeking to curb its use.

“This president needs to understand that the Republicans simply don’t trust him,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina who has been working with senators to find a path forward. “If we don’t have certainty on exactly what the parole process is going to be, he could have thousands of people. Parole is supposed to be dealt with on a case by case basis. He’s probably going to learn that the courts agree with that, but now he is using it as a mass tool for permitting people into this country.”

The administration is already facing headwinds in its use of parole – which is different than that of the criminal justice system. Earlier this year, Republican-led states filed a lawsuit against the humanitarian parole program, arguing that the administration exceeded its authority in its use of the program and requesting the court block it. The case is ongoing.

But it’s not clear what Democrats can accept when it comes to changing how parole authority is used in part because it’s a key component of the administration’s border strategy. Two ideas that have been floated are capping the number of people who could be paroled or subjecting use of the authority to the Congressional Review Act, according to two sources familiar with negotiations.

There are currently specialized humanitarian parole programs for immigrants from countries such as Ukraine, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua. Parole is also used on a case-by-case basis to reduce congestion in border processing. It is a tool that Democrats say is incredibly important for the administration to maintain.

“Let me tell you, the president has said that is a nonstarter and I agree with him,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. “He has to have the authority in emergency situations to come to the aid of people who are dying. It just happens all over the world on a regular basis and he has to have the authority to do this. To eliminate parole would be to tie his hands. It’s a very grave situation.”

When pressed on if he’d be open to limiting parole, Durbin said, “The president needs the authority he currently has on parole, and I’m opposed to changing it.”

The White House has refused to publicly wade into the negotiations, punting instead to Congress, but sources said conversations between White House officials and those involved in the negotiations are happening behind the scenes as are regular conversations between Republican negotiators and House Speaker Mike Johnson, according to two sources familiar with those talks.

Durbin added he hoped the group could come to a consensus soon because a lot is riding on a border security agreement, including aid to Ukraine and Israel.

“They’ve had bad time and good times. I just hope they resolve it soon because what is at stake is assistance for Ukraine to stop Putin and assistance to Israel to try to bring an end to the violence that is going on there,” Durbin said.

Aides familiar with the negotiations told CNN that there has been a lot of progress on raising the credible fear standard for migrants seeking asylum. Negotiators have agreed that raising the bar for the initial interview could have a major impact.

Democrats are also pushing to make sure that there is a significant financial investment to speed up the adjudication process and invest in immigration judges and case workers to also reduce the number of people in the pipeline who are seeking asylum in the United States.

The White House’s supplemental request also includes $14 billion for border security.

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