Senators voted early Wednesday to block the release and transport of illegal immigrants at the border who do not have a negative COVID-19 test, in a symbolic rebuke of the Biden administration’s handling of the current border surge.
Republicans pointed to reports that more than 1,000 COVID-19 positive migrants were released into a single Texas community last week as evidence of the need for a change, and in an 88-11 vote senators agreed, adopting language encouraging resources for testing, but also imposing a quarantine on migrants who have not yet received a negative test.
The vote came amid the debate over Democrats’ sprawling new budget plan, which exposed concerns among senators, including Democrats, over the Biden administration’s current immigration policies.
In one surprising vote, senators approved language pushing back on the deportation restrictions President Biden’s new Homeland Security team has imposed at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which discourages removing people with older or lower-level criminal convictions.
Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee Republican, proposed an amendment to the budget that called for ICE to have enough money to remove any illegal immigrants that officers encounter with criminal convictions on their records.
“Despite the border crisis and record border crossings, the Biden administration has drastically reduced deportations to roughly one-quarter what they were last fiscal year, reaching the lowest levels on record this spring,” he said. “That means the administration is allowing thousands of criminal illegal aliens per month to remain in American communities and potentially commit more crimes.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Democrats’ point-man on immigration, who will be asked to draft the amnesty language in the budget, complained that Mr. Hagerty’s proposal was too broad, and would include illegal immigrants who have been convicted of misdemeanors.
He also said it would interfere with the Biden administration’s new priorities laying out who can and can’t be deported.
But the Democrat-controlled Senate still approved the amendment, 53-46, with several Democrats up for reelection next year joining the GOP.
Despite those cracks, Democrats held the line against other GOP proposals, voting down an amendment that would have barred illegal immigrants with criminal records from being eligible to get on a pathway to citizenship.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Senate’s senior Republican, said it should have been “a very easy call” to deny criminals a foothold toward citizenship.
Mr. Durbin, though, said the GOP proposal would also apply to people who had been charged but not yet convicted. He said that would include those jumping the border, which can be charged as a misdemeanor crime.
“This amendment is inconsistent with due process,” he said.
The proposal was defeated on a 50-49 party-line vote.
An amnesty covering millions of illegal immigrants is part of Democrats’ budget blueprint, an expansive $3.5 trillion program to tackle climate change and expand the government’s network of safety net programs.
That blueprint cleared the Senate early Wednesday morning, and now the committees must go write the actual language to try to carry out those goals.
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