The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP-led House committee rebuffs Trump administration on immigrant asylum claim policy

Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Alex Brandon/AP)

A GOP-led House committee delivered a rebuke of the Trump administration’s immigration policies this week — an unusual bipartisan move that may ultimately spell trouble for must-pass spending measures later this year. 

The powerful House Appropriations Committee passed a measure that would essentially reverse Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s guidance earlier this year that immigrants will not generally be allowed to use claims of domestic or gang violence to qualify for asylum. The provision was adopted as part of a larger spending bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security, an already contentious measure because of disputes over funding for President Trump’s border wall. 

But one influential Senate Republican and ally of the White House warned that keeping the asylum provision could sink the must-pass funding bill, and other conservatives who support a tougher line on immigration began denouncing it Thursday. 

“Why is @HouseAppropsGOP voting to undermine AG Sessions’s asylum reforms & throw open our borders to fraud & crime?” tweeted Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), who often has Trump’s ear on key issues. “The amendment they adopted [Wednesday] is the kind of thing that will kill the DHS spending bill.”

The amendment, written by Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), would bar funding from government efforts to carry out Sessions’s asylum directive. It passed the committee unanimously.

Sessions laid out guidance last month that said victims of domestic abuse and gang violence that is “perpetrated by non-governmental actors” will generally not be allowed to obtain asylum in the United States, an effort he said was meant to cut down on fraud.

Sessions: Victims of domestic abuse and gang violence generally won’t qualify for asylum

But Democrats and immigrant rights advocates have criticized Sessions’s move, warning that it would disqualify tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries. His decision came as the administration was implementing a “zero-tolerance” policy that subjected everyone who crossed the border illegally to criminal prosecution, causing migrant parents to be separated from their children.  

One senior Republican official said it was unlikely that the provision would stay intact once the House and Senate merge their spending measures, adding that “not every vote taken is to make law, but to move the process forward.”

With their respective bills for DHS funding, the two chambers are already headed for a clash over border wall spending, with the House allocating about $5 billion for it, while the Senate sets aside $1.6 billion. 

Still, both advocates and opponents of more generous immigration policies were surprised at the committee’s move to approve the asylum measure unanimously. 

“I think there was a general impression that things like that, that would undermine what the administration’s policies are, would be partisan fights and partisan battles,” said Josh Breisblatt, a senior policy analyst for the American Immigration Council. 

Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), who leads the panel overseeing DHS funding, spoke in favor of the Democratic-sponsored provision, saying: “As a son of a social worker, I have great compassion for those victims of domestic violence anywhere, especially as it concerns those nations that turn a blind eye to crimes of domestic violence.” 

Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, noted that Yoder flew on Air Force One just this week and that Trump had already singled out Yoder for praise on Twitter, thanking him for securing the $5 billion in wall money in the DHS spending measure.

“He got the funding for the wall in there, and the president endorsed him, and he approved this amendment and spoke in favor of it,” Krikorian said. “That basically makes the wall not all that useful, at least for immigration purposes.”