U.S. Rep. Chip Roy offers warm reception to Biden border proposal as Democrats recoil

Migrants walk onto a bus after crossing the border in Roma on Aug. 16, 2021. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chip Roy is hardly one to praise the Biden administration on U.S.-Mexico border issues. The Austin Republican’s bill seeking to detain migrants in search of asylum at the border — and give the secretary of Homeland Security the power to completely shut down the border — has been lambasted by Democrats and moderate Republicans as being too draconian.

But parallels emerged between his legislation and a new proposal President Joe Biden’s administration is reportedly considering — and it wasn’t lost on Roy and his critics. Senior White House and immigration officials could resume detaining migrants crossing into the country as they expect a new wave of asylum-seekers, The New York Times reported.

Roy stopped short of his usual criticism of Biden’s immigration policy when asked about the proposal in an interview Wednesday and suggested that the president was finally acknowledging the issue.

“The administration is basically telling the world, ‘Oh, shit, we’ve got an actual problem down here,’” Roy said Wednesday. “So I’m glad to see the administration is at least thinking about going back to the things they inherited two years ago because they now realize that crap show they’ve created.”

Roy still reserved judgment on the proposal until he saw more definitive guidelines than in the New York Times story.

Roy’s tacit approval only adds fuel to the fire for Texas Democrats recoiling at the report that the Biden administration could detain asylum-seekers.

“Many of us would be legitimately outraged if that were to come back,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, a key voice on border issues.

Critics of reinstating detentions harked back to the Trump administration’s policies of detaining migrants and making asylum-seekers wait out their cases in Mexico. Biden promised on the campaign trail to swiftly rescind those policies, which immigrant rights activists said often left migrants in inhumane conditions and could have lasting psychological effects on children. The president nixed the “remain in Mexico” policy shortly after taking office, prompting a barrage of attacks from Republicans that he gave carte blanche to cartels to continue deadly smuggling operations across the border.

Escobar acknowledged that detaining migrants would be similar to what Roy’s bill proposes. She has repeatedly denounced that policy as ineffective because detention space is limited and she believes it falls short of the country’s responsibility to hear out asylum claims.

Texas Democrat Julián Castro, who challenged Biden in the 2020 Democratic primaries, told Newsweek that reimplementing detentions would be an “abandonment” of the president’s campaign promises.

The administration is under growing pressure from Republicans’ attacks over Biden’s handling of the border, which Republicans tie directly to cartel violence impacting border communities. The violence came further into the spotlight this week after two kidnapped Americans were found dead in northern Mexico just across the border from Brownsville.

Border communities are also struggling to provide resources for a record number of migrants who are crossing, which local leaders and members of Congress expect to increase in May when the pandemic-era Title 42 rule expires. The holdover COVID-19 containment provision allows the administration to expel migrants, which Republicans say has been key to preventing a wave of migration that would overwhelm border communities. Roy’s bill would also give the secretary of Homeland Security the power to continue to expel migrants without invoking a health-related emergency.

And it’s not just Republicans concerned with increased crossings. Border Democrats have sounded the alarm over the strain on local resources. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, didn’t dismiss the idea of bringing back detentions outright, distancing the proposal from the family separations under the Trump administration. He said it could be appropriate if “it’s the right thing to do at the moment” and “if we’re overwhelmed.”

“It's a message to folks in Central America and other countries that this is not a good time for them to be coming to our southern border,” Gonzalez said.

League of United Latin American Citizens leaders met with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday to discuss paths forward and called on the administration to reduce migrants by implementing a three- to six-month pause on new asylum applications, citing the strain on border communities.

The May deadline has the administration crunching for solutions, and the White House asserts immigration officials are considering all options, but that doesn’t mean any decisions have been reached yet.

“One thing … that I promote in this department is to put all options on the table. Great, good, bad, terrible,” Mayorkas told CNN on Tuesday. “Let us discuss them, and many will be left on the cutting room floor. But the best ideas blossom from open and candid dialogue and really just a robust discussion of alternatives.”

The administration has offered new pathways for would-be asylum-seekers to enter the country, including more work visas, refugee admissions and parole programs for several Latin American countries experiencing political turmoil. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said the administration will “prioritize safe, orderly, and humane processing of migrants.”

The May deadline also highlights the need for congressional action on the issue, said Escobar and U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin. Escobar has been an outspoken voice for comprehensive border and immigration reform, holding out hope that a package to protect some of the most vulnerable migrants and provide resources for border security could come to fruition in the split Congress. She is joining a group of bipartisan senators including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in Mexico later this month as they explore legislative options.

Escobar and Casar joined Mayorkas on a virtual call Tuesday hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has blasted migrant detainment as cruel, particularly for children. Both Escobar and Casar cast doubt on the administration reimplementing detention. They said it would be a considerable about-face from a Homeland Security secretary who kicked off his term by ending Trump-era border policies — including detentions. Many migrants who claim asylum are released with some kind of tracking technology into the country to await their court hearings.

“I don’t see any reason why they would bring it back,” Casar said.

Both Casar and Escobar declined to go into the details of the call. Escobar said she saw no signs that Mayorkas was weighing political concerns in his decision-making.

“The right wing in Congress continue to say that the president is an open-borders president. It doesn’t matter what it is that he does, so there is no good policy reason for detaining families, and there is no good political reason for detaining families,” Casar said.

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