What’s in the Senate’s sweeping $118 billion immigration and foreign aid bill?

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For months — nay, over a year — Republicans in Congress have stressed there’s a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border and that urgent action is needed.

They pushed to connect the issue to any funding for allies in Ukraine, Israel and the Pacific Rim.

Now, after a hard-negotiated bipartisan Senate compromise bill has been released, Republicans are either vowing to block it or declaring it “dead on arrival,” in the words of House Speaker Mike Johnson.

The long-awaited $118 billion Senate proposal on border security and wartime aid released Sunday faces a difficult path forward.

Along with funding for Ukraine and Israel, as well as humanitarian assistance for people fleeing Gaza, this bill is a dramatic rewriting of the asylum system. It’s been described to me by one advocate as a “seismic shift.”


Watch the segment in the player above.

There are some substantive objections from conservatives. They question if the bill truly ends the “catch and release” program allowing undocumented immigrants into the country to wait for processing, among other things.

The bill faces a potential do-or-die moment in the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to get through a key procedural test. That vote, to essentially open debate, is expected Wednesday.

Senators backing the deal say that can change — if only they can get enough support in the Senate to put pressure on the House.

While its prospects increasingly look dim, we think it important to take a look at what the bill contains. It is the most significant immigration proposal to see daylight in a decade.
Here’s a quick look at what the 370-page bill funds, along with major proposed immigration changes.

A FUNDING BREAKDOWN

Total size: $118.3 billion. That includes:

  • About $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine
  • $14.1 billion in aid for Israel
  • $4.83 billion in aid for the Indo-Pacific region
  • $10 billion in humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, among other places
  • $2.3 billion in refugee assistance inside the U.S.
  • $20.2 billion for improvements to U.S. border security
  • $2.72 billion for domestic uranium enrichment

THE IMMIGRATION PROVISIONS

Asylum. There are many big changes here.

  • A new system. The bill moves most new asylum cases to the Department of Homeland Security. No longer would these cases be heard by immigration judges under the Department of Justice. Instead, the people hearing these cases would be asylum officers with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency under DHS.
  • This rule is both for the initial asylum claims and also for most appeals. The idea here is that it is a much faster review, often without attorneys or a deliberative process.
  • A new standard. At the initial interview, an asylum seeker must establish “clear and convincing” proof that they have a credible fear of persecution if they stay in their country. The standard would change to a “significant possibility.” The bill authors believe this change would result in the vast majority of applications being rejected.
  • Other new criteria, earlier in the process. During the initial interview, the bill says, asylum claims can be rejected if the person has a disqualifying criminal history, if they were living safely in a third country before seeking asylum, or if they could safely relocate in their original home country.
  • A new process. Under the bill, this system is to be in place and operational 91 days after the bill is signed into law. This is how it would work: (1) Migrants receive an initial screening within 90 days of arrival. (2) If the claim fails — a “negative protection decision” — they are immediately ordered for removal. They have 72 hours to appeal or request a hearing. (3) If the claim passes initial screening — “positive protection decision” — they will get a work authorization immediately, be released into the country and have another 90 days before a final decision is made on their case.

New detention beds and rules. The number of detention beds goes to 50,000. Right now, there are fewer than 40,000.

  • People who arrive and are processed via ports of entry are not automatically detained. They could await processing inside the United States. Migrants entering the country illegally and seeking asylum are more likely to be detained than under current law.
  • But there are significant exceptions, including families, who are not detained. Instead they will be tracked using one of various “alternatives to detention” methods, chosen by the person processing the claim. Options include ankle bracelets and simple contact.

New border emergency authority. The bill sets up a new trigger based on the average number of migrant encounters. After this level is reached, most new migrants entering the country illegally, outside of legal ports of entry, will automatically be removed. But it is more complicated than “shutting down” the border.

If the average number of migrants crossing is:

  • 4,000 per day, over seven days, DHS can launch this authority.
  • 5,000 per day, over seven days, DHS must launch this authority.

This emergency trigger turns off within two weeks of the numbers falling below 4,000 or 5,000. And it cannot be used more than 270 days in the first year, with smaller amounts in the next two years. This authority would sunset in three years.

When the emergency authority is launched, DHS can ban entry by all those who enter illegally, i.e. not through ports of entry. For most of the people turned away, there would be no screening for credible fear asylum seekers before being returned.

But there are exceptions:

  • Unaccompanied minors would be admitted.
  • DHS can screen for people claiming they will be tortured upon return, or who are fighting other removal orders already in place.
  • At least 1,400 of the migrants who enter outside legal ports of entry will be processed per day at the southwest border. (Allowing some narrow access to asylum, and fulfilling demands of international law.)

Humanitarian parole. This bill ends other forms of parole, including the one used now to release migrants found crossing the border illegally. It does not significantly change the president’s ability to use humanitarian parole. Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans (CHNV) — the parole program known as Processes for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezeulans stays in place, with residents of those countries able to apply for entry using those spots. However, they must come through ports of entry, generally.

OTHER BIG PROVISIONS

  • More legal immigration: 50,000 new visas a year for five years. These are job- or family-related.
  • The Afghan Adjustment Act: This gives green cards and pathways to citizenship for Afghans admitted or paroled after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021.
  • The bill blocks funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for this and prior appropriations.

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