California’s Padilla Personally Warned Biden Not to Fold to GOP on Immigration to Aid Ukraine

Francis Chung/Associated Press

   Senator Alex Padilla approached President Biden at a campaign fundraiser held at a lavish mansion in the Pacific Palisades to issue a warning. Despite the event's purpose to court donors and discuss the administration's record, Padilla pulled Biden aside to discuss ongoing negotiations in the Senate.

Padilla expressed concern that Biden might be on the verge of setting a harmful precedent. He knew that the White House was contemplating agreeing to permanent immigration policy changes in exchange for Senate Republicans' support for approximately $110 billion in one-time aid to Ukraine, Israel, and other U.S. allies.

"The primary message I was seeking to convey is a warning to [Biden] that Republican senators were dragging him into territory that was harmful policy," Padilla stated in a Thursday interview with The Times. According to the senator, Biden "was listening intently" and inquired about the last time Padilla had been in contact with staffers in the West Wing.

Padilla declined to provide additional details on Biden's response but mentioned that since Thanksgiving, he has been in contact with aides in the West Wing "at least on a daily basis." This communication includes interactions with White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients and Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president.

"I wish we were having a conversation and making sure we get [the change] right," Padilla remarked. "I think right now we’re in the conversation of making sure we don’t get it wrong."

Padilla's concerns, coupled with his strong advocacy with the White House, suggest that the Ukraine, Israel, and border policy deal that Biden and Senate leaders aim to achieve may encounter challenges in gaining widespread Democratic support.

There's a pressing need for Congress to swiftly pass a supplemental funding bill to provide the necessary assistance to Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. This plea is supported by Biden, Senate leaders, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who recently visited Washington.

White House officials, along with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, stepped in this week as it became evident that a bipartisan group of senators had failed to reach a deal. Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, held discussions with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and joined negotiations on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Zients emphasized that President Biden supports increased funding for border security and is open to changes in immigration policy, as stated by a White House official.

“The president actually does really think we need to do something on the border,” mentioned the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.

Republicans have advocated for measures that would permit border officials to expel migrants without subjecting them to asylum screening, broaden the detention of immigrants, including families, extend the use of expedited deportations from the border into the U.S. interior, and restrict who can seek asylum. Additionally, Republicans aimed to terminate the president’s authority to expedite humanitarian entry to the U.S., a power Biden has frequently employed to welcome tens of thousands of migrants from countries such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Cuba.

The White House is actively considering two of the GOP’s suggestions: allowing border officials to promptly expel migrants if the number of arrivals at the border surpasses a certain threshold and elevating the standard used to initially assess whether a migrant might qualify for asylum.

"There is not yet an agreement on principles," disclosed a congressional staffer familiar with the negotiations to The Times. "Legislative text is a long way off. Negotiators are continuing to make progress towards a deal."

While Republicans maintain that a deal is unattainable, Democratic negotiators and White House officials have indicated their willingness to align more closely with GOP demands on border policy to achieve a deal before the year's end. "We're making progress," mentioned a White House aide on Thursday. "We're not there yet, but the conversation is going in the right direction."

Late Thursday, Senator Schumer shortened senators' holiday break, requiring them to remain in Washington next week for votes. It remains uncertain when or if legislative text will emerge, or when a floor vote might be scheduled. Even if the White House and Senate manage a Christmas miracle, they would still need backing from concerned Democrats, including Padilla, and the Republican-controlled House, which is on recess until January.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) indicated on Thursday that he would not recall the House back to Washington. "For some reason, the Biden Administration waited until this week to even begin negotiations with Congress on the border issue," he wrote on Twitter. "While that work should continue, the House will not wait around to receive and debate a rushed product."

Earlier this month, House Republicans approved a $14-billion package to support Israel’s efforts in the Gaza Strip. However, the bill reduced funding approved by Biden’s signature Inflation Reduction Act, rendering it nonviable in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Under Johnson's leadership, the House has not approved additional funding for Ukraine or American allies in the Pacific. Nevertheless, House Republicans are urging Senate negotiators to incorporate their May immigration bill into any agreement with the White House.

This legislation, serving as a GOP immigration wish list, aims to address unlawful immigration by restricting asylum, solidifying border policies previously championed by former President Trump, expanding the border wall, criminalizing visa overstays, and mandating companies to verify employees' legal eligibility to work.

Critics argue that much of what is being considered in negotiations would impede U.S. Customs and Border Protection without effectively addressing the root causes of migration. Jason Houser, former chief of staff at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement until March, expressed these concerns.

Houser also expressed concern that negotiations could resurrect a version of the pandemic-era Title 42 policy. This policy allowed border officials to swiftly expel migrants without considering their asylum requests. Under the Trump-era policy, migrant arrivals at the border actually increased, partly because many migrants immediately re-crossed the border after being expelled. It's essential to note that expulsion is distinct from formal deportation, which can entail consequences such as criminal prosecution and a five-year ban from the U.S.

Houser argued that making it easier for border officials to expel migrants won't necessarily reduce the number of people attempting to cross the border. This is because some countries may not readmit citizens that the U.S. turns away. Expelled migrants, along with human traffickers facilitating their movement across borders, would likely attempt the crossing again.

Kerri Talbot, the executive director of the advocacy group Immigration Hub, is hopeful that the negotiations will ultimately fail. She views resurrecting an expulsion authority not tied to national public health as a "blunt tool" that would neglect the individual circumstances of each case.

Talbot is also concerned that the White House is considering raising the legal threshold migrants must meet in their initial interview with a border agent to avoid being fast-tracked for deportation. "Almost no one has an attorney at that stage," noted Talbot, a seasoned advocate for immigrants who played a role in crafting the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. "So some people with valid cases will get blocked."

In a letter to White House staff on Tuesday, Talbot and Beatriz Lopez of Immigration Hub argued that the White House would be making a political mistake by conceding to Republicans’ demands.

"The majority of voters in America are pro-immigrant and pro-orderliness — not for separating families, deporting long-settled immigrants, or ending our asylum system," wrote experts in a letter. "Accepting GOP demands is accepting a deficit in support for President Biden in 2024."

However, some experts argue that a border policy deal might not harm Biden's chances of re-election come November.

The reported White House concessions could be seen as a signal that the Biden administration is attempting to appeal to the middle or even the right wing on immigration, according to Tom Wong, a political science professor and the founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego. While such a move might alienate some on the left, Wong suggests that voters in the middle "are most consequential" in presidential elections.

"The Biden administration is taking a political risk by moving to the right on immigration," remarked Wong. However, he added that for those on the left, a potential second Trump term "would be far more dangerous to our immigration system than a second Biden administration giving in on some Republican policy proposals."

Senator Padilla refrained from revealing how he would vote on any bill. Like other senators, he is waiting to see the outcomes of the negotiations. However, he emphasized that he would be reluctant "to concede bad policy to Republicans and have nothing to show for helping Dreamers, agriculture workers, essential workers, and other long-term residents of the United States working, paying taxes, contributing to the strength of our economy."

"That would be a horrible place to be going into the next election," commented Padilla. "When [Biden] ran for president, he talked about restoring the soul of the nation, staying true to our democratic values, and speaking on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees."

"When you hear of a lot of ideas that are being entertained, it is absolutely concerning," added Padilla.