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Opinion Once again, GOP hostage-taking is on the verge of working

Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) listen during a news conference on Title 42 on April 27. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
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Here’s what “bipartisanship” looks like these days: Republicans hold important legislation protecting all Americans hostage, and Democrats give in to GOP demands and hand the hostage-takers a policy victory.

In this case it concerns Title 42, a section of public health law that the Trump administration used as the basis for a rule that deported pretty much all asylum seekers. The argument was that amid the pandemic, asylum-seeking migrants posed a public health risk, so they were expelled without the hearing that is their legal right.

After indefensibly continuing this policy, the Biden administration planned to end it some time this month. But Republicans squawked that allowing asylum seekers to have cases heard would allow too many foreigners into the country, even though most asylum claims are ultimately rejected.

Moderate Democrats, spooked by the GOP attacks, are demanding a vote on a bill that would effectively codify that Title 42 rule into law for the foreseeable future. This is playing into GOP hands: Republicans are insisting they will filibuster the covid-19 aid package badly wanted by the White House until they get a vote on an amendment that would put that border policy into place.

Now Politico reports that Democratic leaders may feel no choice but to give into that demand.

That’s right: To deal with an ongoing pandemic that has killed around 1 million Americans, Democrats must deal a blow to the asylum system, keeping the United States’ doors closed to those fleeing oppression and violence.

The amendment that will come to the floor will probably be based on a three-page bill introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and other senators. It’s significant that these senators barely mention the health justification for the use of Title 42 in their statements about it: No one pretends that extending it is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus. Instead, what the proponents want to stop is more people seeking asylum.

This is creating a truly terrible situation with no obvious answers. For immigration advocates, the fear is that Democrats are getting bum-rushed by Republicans into locking in a situation that will ultimately make it even harder to rationalize our immigration system later.

The Sinema-Lankford bill would require that the administration’s covid national emergency declaration be lifted before there’s an end to mass expulsions of asylum-seeking migrants without hearings.

But the problem is that this replicates what was so terrible about the Title 42 rule. That order used a public health policy to manage immigration flows, which is indefensible in policy terms. Yet this measure would codify that, making it a matter of federal law that these two things are linked.

Kerri Talbot, deputy director for the Immigration Hub, points out that this would inextricably tie covid designations to the mission of border management over the long term.

“We need those health care designations for our response to covid,” Talbot told us, noting that this would “politicize those designations by tying them to border policy,” and even “put this into law.”

What’s more, this could lock in dramatic restrictions on asylum seeking for the foreseeable future, given that this covid emergency declaration might be with us for some time.

“If the end of Title 42 is tied to the covid public health emergency, then it could be years before the right to seek asylum is restored in full,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, told us.

What makes this so galling is that it might not even be necessary from the standpoint of moderate Democrats themselves.

Later this week, a federal judge is widely expected to block the administration from lifting the Title 42 policy, as part of a lawsuit brought by GOP-controlled states against Biden’s move. That would give those moderate Democrats an out.

But that doesn’t appear to be enough for them. All indications are that they also want to vote to codify this in law, in the belief that it will insulate them from GOP attacks in the midterms.

“Republicans want to end asylum as we know it,” Frank Sharry, the executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice, told us. “The Lankford-Sinema bill is the Republican vehicle to do this. And moderate Democrats are playing along. They don’t have to.”

In fairness, this is not an easy situation for Democratic leaders. Everyone wants to secure that covid aid to prepare for future surges, and it may not be possible to get Republicans to support this without a vote on codifying the Title 42 policy.

But here again the advocates raise an objection: If Republicans insist on codifying that, Democrats might try to extract concessions on immigration in exchange, such as protections for “dreamers” brought here as young children.

“They’re essentially trading away border policy and not moving forward on legalization,” Talbot told us.

Yet at the same time, Democrats may not have any other choice, as long as Republicans insist they’ll only support covid aid in exchange for codifying the Title 42 policy. There are no indications that Republicans are willing to make broader immigration changes a part of this exchange.

As a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide told us: “They’re the ones who are holding hostage the covid relief that Americans desperately need.”

And there are no indications that Republicans are paying a political price for any of it.

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