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Trump, GOP bill to end the shutdown would dramatically change the US asylum system

President Donald Trump speaks as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, listens after a Senate Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Senate leaders reached an agreement Tuesday afternoon to consider two separate bills in an attempt to end the 32-day standoff over border security and reopen the federal government.

One bill, which is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled House easily, would reopen the government by extending funding to the agencies affected by the shutdown through Feb. 8. The other is legislation the White House touted over the weekend as a "good faith compromise" to reopen the government and fund border security while purporting to address bipartisan immigration priorities.

On Monday evening, Senate appropriators released the text of the White House legislation, which President Donald Trump described as a "commonsense compromise both parties should embrace." Hidden in the text of the 1,301-page bill were substantial changes to U.S. immigration policy, strict limits on the ability of Central Americans to seek asylum in the United States and other measures that would make it more difficult for Dreamers and individuals receiving Temporary Protected Status to remain in the country.

What the White House claimed was in its proposal and the actual text of the legislation was dramatically different and virtually guarantees it will be dead on arrival when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brings it to a vote Thursday. House Democrats have voiced virtually unanimous opposition to the bill and Senate Democrats have enough votes to block it from advancing.

"There were no serious negotiations with Democratic leaders or any Democrat to produce this proposal," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday. The president and GOP leadership negotiated in "bad faith," Schumer continued. "No one can call this new effort a compromise."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted the president's offer is "the only thing on the table," because it is the only proposal that would immediately end the government shutdown and also earn President Trump's signature.

ASYLUM ELIGIBILITY RESTRICTIONS AND CAPS

According to a provision tucked away at the end of the thousand-page bill, there would be new restrictions on the process by which Central American children can apply for asylum in the United States as well as a cap on the number of individuals who can seek asylum.

Specifically, the bill states that minors from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras "shall be ineligible for asylum" unless they submit an application for asylum outside the United States at a yet-to-be-established processing center in Central America. With limited exceptions, the U.S. would no longer process Central American minors' asylum requests at border ports of entry.

Although the bill would require asylum-seekers to complete an in-country asylum request immediately after the law went into effect, the administration said it needs about eight months (240 days) to set up processing centers. Those centers would be located in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama. In other words, to qualify for asylum, individuals would have to use processing centers that do not exist.

These changes would result in a period of months in which children from Central American would not be eligible for asylum, explained Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council and former immigration attorney. "The bill provides no transition period, it just says once this bill passes all Central Americans are barred from asylum unless they go through these centers which are not set up immediately," he said. "So anyone who wants to apply for asylum in the meantime is out of luck."

An asylum-seeker would also be deemed ineligible if he or she is older than 18 years of age, has been convicted of a crime in the United States, has previously been removed from the country or is subject to a final order of removal. Migrants who are deemed a public safety or national security risk can be rejected as well as individuals who had previous asylum requests denied.

Exceptions are made in cases where the asylee was recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or certain non-governmental organizations.

The new law would also limit the Department of Homeland Security to processing only 50,000 asylum requests per year and it would cap the number of individuals who receive asylum at 15,000.

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, there were 331,700 asylum claims filed in the United States in 2017, more than any other country. The number of individuals who are granted asylum is much less. The most recent U.S. government data show approximately 20,500 people were granted asylum in 2016.

The U.S. has a longstanding policy of limiting the number of refugees it accepts per year but does not currently limit the number of asylum-seekers. Last year, President Trump set the refugee cap at 35,000, the lowest it has been since the program was created in 1980 and about a third of the level set by Obama before he left office.

FALSE ADVERTISING

On Saturday, President Trump gave a speech outlining his proposal. In exchange for $5.7 billion in funding for a southern border wall, President Trump said he would extend protections for Dreamers and individuals receiving Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for three years. As a humanitarian gesture, the administration said it planned to establish in-country asylum processing and improve family reunification so Central American minors could avoid the dangerous trip north.

Trump discussed the new asylum process obliquely. "Our plan includes critical measures to protect migrant children from exploitation and abuse," he said. "This includes a new system to allow Central American minors to apply for asylum in their home countries and reform to promote family reunification for unaccompanied children, thousands of whom wind up on our border doorstep."

In concept, it sounded like the Central American Minors (CAM) program, an initiative started by President Barack Obama in 2014 to allow in-country applications for refugees. President Trump ended that program shortly after taking office.

Peter Boogaard, communications director for FWD.us, worked on Obama's CAM program at the Department of Homeland Security. He noted that the new proposal for in-country asylum requests did not resemble CAMthat the Trump plan was "totally unworkable."

"What they are ultimately doing here is eliminating people's ability to claim asylum at the border," he said. "They're trying to establish processes to be a deterrent for people trying to claim asylum."

According to government data, roughly one in ten individuals arriving at the U.S. southern border claims a credible fear of return to their home country and begins the asylum process. The number of asylum-seekers at the southern border has increased by almost 1,700 percent since 2010 and many are women and children fleeing from Central America.

Despite White House claims of consulting Democrats in Congress on ways to address the crisis, the proposal did not reflect a good faith effort to reach across the aisle, Boogaard said. "The White House negotiated with themselves on this issue."

WHITE HOUSE PLAN 'GUTS' DACA, TPS

On Saturday, the White House released a fact-sheet describing its offer to extend legal protections to Dreamers and TPS recipients as in line with Democratic priorities and previous legislation, like the bipartisan BRIDGE Act. The reality, again, was different.

The legislation promoted by the White House would limit legal protections to those Dreamers who are currently enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Moreover, the bill would make it more difficult for future DACA recipients to receive legal protections and it would add a $500 fee onto the DACA application, which currently costs $495.

The White House offer to extend protection to approximately 300,000 TPS recipients from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan were also misleading, according to an analysis by David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

"[T]his legislation should not be described as an extension of TPS when, in fact, it guts the program for existing recipients and removes it as an option for many future immigrants as well," Bier wrote.

While extending TPS for individuals in those four countries, it ends the program for recipients from another five countries. The changes would also require TPS recipients to reapply for legal status, work authorizations and increases the cost of applying for TPS tenfold to $500.

"None of these changes were in the White House fact sheet that went out Saturday. None of these have been discussed. None of these are bipartisan," said Reichlin-Melnick. "If the administration thinks this is a bill that can pass, it's not fooling anybody."

After more than a month, the prospects of ending the government shutdown remain dim. There is little if any support from congressional Democrats for the White House's "bipartisan compromise" and President Trump has refused to sign the House Democrats' bill to reopen the government without funding the border wall.

"I think doing the same essentially over and over again is not likely to get us there," former House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla. said in a hearing with lawmakers Tuesday.

Even with two proposals up for consideration this week, neither side appears close to resolving the shutdown and reopening the government, Cole acknowledged, saying, "I think it's one more pointless exercise."

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