President Biden’s $118 billion anti-immigration deal is collapsing on the eve of its procedural vote in the Senate, abandoned by the same GOP leaders who helped negotiate it. Ahead of the February 7 vote, Republicans withdrew support in an apparent effort to appease likely 2024 presidential nominee Donald Trump. The sweeping national security package would have given Biden new emergency powers to all but close the border to people seeking asylum, as well as to expedite deportations.
Though recent discussion around the legislation focused on military funding for Ukraine and Israel, the version originally proposed would have allocated nearly $50 million to the Drug Enforcement Administration to escalate fentanyl interdiction at the US-Mexico border. It would have closed the border if unsanctioned crossings surpassed 5,000 per day on average, triggering rapid deportations until the numbers dropped back down.
If the bill fails in the Senate as expected, an alternate version with just the military foreign aid package—dropping the border-security measures—is likely to take its place, and bring in the requisite GOP votes.
The crisis at the US-Mexico border has become a flashpoint in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election, as Biden tries to appeal to voters by cracking down on immigration, and Trump by pointing to Biden’s failure to do so.
To understand more, Filter spoke with Bill Ong Hing, founding director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco. Hing has also served as legal counsel for clients facing deportation as well as authored multiple books on immigration reform, most recently 2023’s Humanizing Immigration: How to Transform Our Racist and Unjust System.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“I don’t like the deal. It’s preying on people in desperate situations.”
Alexander Lekhtman: Republicans threatened to block military aid to Ukraine if they didn’t get their way on the border, and pulled out because of political optics. What happens now?
Bill Ong Hing: Talk about strange bedfellows … I’m actually happy about it because I don’t like the deal. It’s preying on people in desperate situations. I don’t want Biden to have authority to close the border and make asylum harder. I couldn’t be happier if the “border” part of this fell apart. I’m not happy about the Ukrainian funding [being blocked].
[Biden] is following the political winds right now. In the Obama administration, he was really investing time and money in addressing root causes in Central America. He handed that issue to Kamala Harris within the first few months of taking office. He knows there’s violence there, but he thinks if he doesn’t close the border he’ll lose the election.
“What Obama and Biden have done is prioritize [deporting] the most recent arrivals … to send a message that people shouldn’t come.”
What are some of the barriers to implementing a more comprehensive, and humane, border policy?
Prior to the Obama detention policy, border policy was working. Before, folks would be quickly processed, interviewed and asked where they are going. They would get written up, given an appointment for a master calendar hearing at ICE and immigration court in the city where they’re heading.
There was over a 90-percent appearance rate. People would get processed, and once out of custody come to the Bay Area or Chicago and show up to their hearings.
Beginning with the surge of unaccompanied minors in 2014, and also many women and children—tens of thousands fleeing violence—[Obama] fell into the rhetoric about a “border crisis.” He opened more detention centers and was trying to speed up the removal process.
This did create a backlog. What Obama and Biden have done is prioritize the most recent arrivals. We have clients with pending cases for five years, and they get bumped because they’re prioritizing new people. It’s their way to send a message that people shouldn’t come. Trump just exacerbated all this.
The border seems to overshadow the fact we have tens of millions of people living here, working hard, not hurting anyone, not criminal, and nobody talks about it. Anti-immigrant folks have defined the border as a problem, and Biden is stuck with that framework.
“The administration should provide funding to those cities bearing the brunt.”
In cities like NYC, Denver and Chicago, mayors are complaining about not having the resources to keep up with influx of people seeking shelter. What’s your reaction to that?
I’m sympathetic to those mayors, in part what’s happening in those cities is because of a political stunt. But it is what it is. There’s people who are in desperate need; the administration should provide funding to those cities bearing the brunt.
What people like Biden probably think is if they can stop people from coming in, it will be out of sight out of mind. It’s a terrible way of approaching a problem, so you can engage in political rhetoric. It’s shunting people aside.
I would set up a wholly new system where asylum officers would be assigned to process the applications quickly, but with the presumption of eligibility if they are coming from countries of violence.
“Texas is arguing the federal government is not doing its job so they have to take it into their own hands.”
The federal government and the state of Texas have each sued the other over alleged interference with their respective border enforcement authority. Are we likely to see further power struggles between border states and the Biden administration?
I believe it’s up in the air whether Texas can get away with this. I don’t have confidence SCOTUS will uphold and repeat past precedent, that [ruling] made it clear only that the federal government has authority to regulate immigration. That’s been a standard constitutional principle since the nation’s founding.
I’m worried this court may look at it differently, and make an exception. Texas is arguing the federal government is not doing its job so they have to take it into their own hands. A few years ago I would have said this would be ruled unconstitutional, but I don’t know now, given the fact this court is open to backtracking legal principles we thought were ingrained.
[Texas] is going back to the drawing board and not allowing CBP and ICE to come in, or to tear down the barbed wire or [buoys]. They are challenging the federal government to send in armed people to do this. The court said Texas can’t do this for now, but they left the door open for a fuller analysis. Texas will stand its ground and go back into court when the feds try to physically oust their officers.
“Drug trafficking and migrant routes are being conflated.”
The federal government frame fentanyl-involved deaths as a border security issue. How does the drug war factor into all this?
Drug trafficking and migrant routes are being conflated. The rhetoric of migrants being used as drug mules, it’s completely exaggerated. It’s scapegoating migrants.
People are arguing that fentanyl is coming over the border, but there’s no evidence [migrants and asylum-seekers] are the ones bringing fentanyl. Drug traffickers have their own networks. Don’t pick on this vast majority of people who have nothing to do with the drug trade.
Photograph of United States-Mexico border wall via Department of Homeland Security