Watch CBS News

Pressured by record migrant crossings, White House weighs tough concession in border talks with Congress

Biden, Republicans trade blame for border crisis
Biden, Republicans trade blame for border crisis 02:23

Pressured by the record levels of migrant crossings reported in December, the Biden administration is weighing whether to restrict a key presidential immigration authority to convince Republican lawmakers to approve more aid to Ukraine and border funding.

A small bipartisan group of senators has been negotiating with the White House since December to see if they can strike a deal on stricter asylum and migration laws, which Republicans have demanded in exchange for supporting President Biden's request for billions of dollars to fund border operations and military assistance to Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine.

While the senators and the White House have reached high-level agreements on tightening asylum interviews, expanding expedited deportations and creating an authority to expel migrants without humanitarian screenings when border agents are overwhelmed, the negotiators have not resolved their differences on some key issues. Among those issues is immigration parole, a legal tool used by the Biden administration to resettle hundreds of thousands of migrants that Republicans want to severely limit.

Senior White House officials have previously told Democrats in Congress that they would not accept the Republican demands to restrict parole. But during a White House meeting on Friday, Mr. Biden's advisers recognized that a border deal with Republicans would not be possible without the administration agreeing on limiting parole, people briefed on those talks told CBS News. Accepting restrictions on parole would be a significant concession to Republicans, since Biden has relied so heavily on the policy.

President Biden Departs The White House For Pennsylvania
U.S. President Joe Biden leaves the White House before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn on January 05, 2024 in Washington, DC.  Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

While it has so far not said much publicly about the talks, the White House internally has been aggressively trying to forge a border policy deal in the Senate due to its desire to give Ukraine more military aid and the political pressure it faces to reduce the unprecedented number of migrants crossing into the U.S. illegally, people familiar with the internal deliberations said.

In December, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processed more than 300,000 migrants at and in between ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, an all-time high roughly the size of the population of Pittsburgh. Roughly 256,000 of those migrants entered the U.S. illegally in between ports of entry, including a record 104,000 parents and children traveling as families, according to internal federal data obtained by CBS News. 

A CBS News poll published Sunday found that over two-thirds — or 68% — of Americans disapprove of Mr. Biden's approach to the U.S.-Mexico border, an all-time high. Sixty-three percent of respondents indicated support for tougher border policies. 

White House and senators signal progress in talks

White House deputy chief of staff Natalie Quillian and Legislative Affairs director Shuwanza Goff have been representing the administration during meetings in Congress or over Zoom with the Senate negotiators, alongside Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. They've been joined mainly by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

A senior Biden administration told CBS News on Saturday that significant progress had been made in the border talks, noting the White House is hoping senators can share the framework of a deal with colleagues sometime this week. Senate negotiators share a similar sense of optimism.

"Nothing is done until it is done, but I am optimistic," a source familiar with the negotiations told CBS News, speaking anonymously to discuss the talks.

Another person involved in the negotiations said lawmakers have made "good progress," but noted that it's unclear whether the group will be able to finalize an agreement this week.

The Biden administration has rejected the Republican criticism that its policy decisions have attracted an influx of migrants, pointing instead to the hemisphere-wide nature of the migrant crisis. However, the president himself has acknowledged that the U.S. asylum process is broken and empowered his team to work with lawmakers to reform it and drive down illegal crossings, the senior administration official said.

But the official cautioned that asylum restrictions alone would not fix the system, saying the administration needs the $14 billion in border funding it requested to impose more consequences — such as deportations — on migrants who enter the country unlawfully.

The president has not been shy about using his executive authority to deter illegal crossings, the official said, citing an asylum restriction being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and the decision to start direct deportations to Venezuela late last year. The administration also recently pressured Mexico to stem U.S.-bound migration further south, including by temporarily suspending legal travel and commerce at some official border crossings, another senior administration official noted. 

The Biden administration has also made a diplomatic push to slow the flow of migration, including by lifting some sanctions on economically troubled Venezuela — a top source of U.S.-bound migrants — and enlisting Mexico's help to stop buses and trains carrying migrants. Top Mexican officials are expected to visit Washington this month for further negotiations.

But an administration official said that a long-term solution would require Congress to change a set of immigration laws that have not been updated since the 1990s.

A key Biden policy could be sacrificed

To get Congress to pass that long elusive reform, however, Mr. Biden may need to sacrifice a key immigration power that Republicans believe he has abused: the parole authority.

Parole allows federal officials to cite humanitarian grounds to authorize the entry of foreigners who otherwise don't have permission to be in the U.S. While it allows recipients to live and work legally in the U.S. on a temporary basis, parole does not provide them permanent legal status.

Dating back to the early 1950s, the immigration parole authority has been used by Democratic and Republican presidents to quickly welcome migrants and refugees on humanitarian grounds, such as Hungarians fleeing Soviet rule, Cuban exiles and Southeast Asians escaping communism.

But over the past three years, the Biden administration has used parole on a record scale, invoking it to resettle hundreds of thousands of Afghans evacuated from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion of their homeland. 

Officials have also used parole to try to divert migration away from the U.S. border, offering migrants from four crisis-stricken Latin American and Caribbean countries up to 30,000 spots each month to come to the country legally if they have sponsors. Under another program, the administration has been granting parole to migrants in Mexico who use a phone app to secure appointments to enter the U.S.

While the administration has argued its use of parole reduces pressure at the border, Republicans have accused it of violating the authority by admitting large groups of migrants who would otherwise not qualify to be in the U.S. 

Beyond parole, other issues negotiators have yet to finalize include the trigger for the authority to expel migrants without asylum screenings, according to people briefed on the talks. They have been debating how many illegal border crossings per day would trigger the policy and whether migrants processed at ports of entry should be counted.

A potential deal's prospects are murkier in the House

If the White House and the Senate reach a compromise, it's unclear if such a proposal would gain the necessary support in the Republican-led House, where many conservative members want harsher asylum laws, oppose aid to Ukraine altogether and believe the priority should be to impeach Mayorkas. House Speaker Mike Johnson has made aid to Ukraine contingent upon dealing with the U.S. border.

During a visit to the Texas border town of Eagle Pass this past week, Johnson said Mayorkas was "not a good faith negotiating partner," faulting his policies for the migrant crisis. He called for senators to pass HR 2, a hardline immigration bill the House passed last year with no Democratic support that would revive most Trump-era border policies.

"If you don't end catch and release as a policy, if you don't reinstitute Remain in Mexico. If you only fix asylum or parole and not these other things, then you don't solve the problem. You don't stem the flow here," Johnson said during an interview with Face the Nation. "That's the number one objective so that we can get a handle on this crisis."

If the administration agrees to restrict parole, the move could alienate some Democrats who see it as a critical policy to facilitate legal migration. Progressives and Latino lawmakers in Congress and advocates for migrants have already been sounding the alarm about the asylum restrictions being discussed by Senate negotiators, accusing the White House of entertaining Trump-like policies.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.