WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is trying to sweeten his pitch for more money for Ukraine by mixing in billions of dollars for securing the U.S.-Mexico border in the hope that it will bring more Republicans on board.
The idea came up late last month, after Ukraine assistance was stripped out of a stopgap measure to keep the government running due to growing Republican resistance to financing the war effort. A lot has changed since Sept. 30: The House has lost its speaker and Republicans are in disarray over selecting a new one, and the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel has prompted a much bigger funding request by the White House.
It’s not at all clear that including roughly $14 billion in border money included as part of the the $106 billion spending package the White House sent to Congress on Friday will placate those who are resisting.
“The border has never been a money issue,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas. “It has always been a policy issue. So we need to get in a room, go to the White House and sort that out.”
The conflict in the Mideast may have pulled some of the spotlight away from the U.S.-Mexico border for now, but the migration challenges facing the U.S. are growing increasingly intractable. Democratic leaders at both the state and local level are begging for federal assistance to help care for migrant families living in squalid shelters and sleeping in police stations. Republicans are loudly critical of Biden’s border policies as too lax. And Congress has not passed an immigration overhaul in decades.
There are rising numbers of migrants at the border; arrests for illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico line were up 21% to 218,763 last month, and Biden has repeatedly said Congress should act to fix outdated immigration laws. But in the meantime, his administration has developed policies that aim to deter migrants from making a dangerous and often deadly journey while also opening up new legal immigration pathways.
The funding request is an attempt not only to manage people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, but also to deal with the growing numbers of migrants who are already here, waiting for their cases to play out.
The White House proposal includes $1.6 billion to hire 1,600 new asylum officers and processing personnel, which could double the number of people working on asylum cases. It also suggests $1.4 billion to add 375 immigration judges and their teams in addition to money for 1,300 new border patrol agents. There is $4.4 billion for Homeland Security efforts, including increased funding for holding facilities as the administration works to quickly deport those who do not qualify for asylum.
“That’s a real effort and acknowledgement of the backlog that exists,” said Colleen Putzel, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration think tank.
There’s also $1.3 billion requested for regional migration centers outside the U.S., a new effort brokered by the Biden administration to encourage would-be migrants to stay where they are and apply for asylum before crossing the deadly Darien gap between South and Central America.
The request also includes $1.4 billion to help state and local governments provide shelter and services for migrants, following pleas from Democratic mayors and governors who want more assistance in caring for newly arriving migrants.
But New York City alone is expecting to spend more than $5 billion on the issue by the end of the budget year. More than 130,600 asylum seekers have come through the city’s intake system since 2022 and there’s been criticism over the conditions under which they are living.
New York Mayor Eric Adams went to Mexico to implore would-be migrants not to come. He has accused the Biden administration of not providing enough money or resources for the city to process migrants, telling reporters in the summer: “The president and the White House have failed New York City on this issue.”
In Chicago, O’Hare International Airport is now housing hundreds of migrants from babies to the elderly at a shuttle bus center. They sleep on cardboard pads on the floor and share airport bathrooms.
“The governor has been clear about the state’s urgent need for additional federal resources to address this crisis,” said Alex Gough, speaking for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat. “While we are hopeful the Biden administration will be able to take further action soon, allocating any new funding would require the GOP members in the House to get their act together and do their jobs.”
Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey said the money was “urgently needed for states like Massachusetts that are experiencing historic surges in migrant arrivals, and we appreciate the Biden administration’s acknowledgement that these funds need to be distributed more equitably.”
It’s unclear how any spending package can pass. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted by fellow Republicans and there’s no leader in sight. Republicans are already pushing back on using funds to help people who are already in the country, rather than for limiting those at the border. A group of Republican senators met Thursday to discuss proposals that they would support.
After a classified briefing with administration officials on Wednesday, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he’d be inclined to support the money for Israel and Ukraine as long as there was a strong border security component. “But it’s got to be designed to secure the border, not to facilitate travel through the border,” he said.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn posted online Friday that he supported aid to Israel and Ukraine. “But without meaningful and substantive policy changes that will address the #BidenBorderCrisis such aid is in serious jeopardy,” he posted on the platform X. “No more money should be spent simply to facilitate current border policy.”
It’s unclear if compromise is possible on the issue.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who leads a Senate panel that oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security, was wary of mixing any effort to overhaul border policy into a debate over spending.
“How are we going to settle our differences over immigration in the next two weeks?” Murphy asked. “This is a supplemental funding bill. The minute you start loading it up with policies, that sounds like a plan to fail.”
Crenshaw, the Texas Republican, said he agreed with the three priorities of the president’s proposal: Ukraine, Israel and the border. “Conceptually, we’re on the right track here.”
But he added: “The sticking point is going to be in the details. The border is not about money; there’s some money that needs to be spent on certain things, but it is way more about policy. And so we’re going to outline very clearly that the policy needs to be effective. When I say that, I mean asylum reform.”
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Kevin Freking in Washington, Claire Savage in Chicago, Mike Casey in Boston, Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine, Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vt., and Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.