Democratic lawmakers want President Biden to protect Palestinians in US from being forced home

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee on President Biden's supplemental funding request for Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Dozens of Democratic lawmakers are urging President Joe Biden to take steps to protect Palestinians in the United States as Israeli forces continue to fight Hamas militants inside Gaza City and thousands flee the area amid increasingly dire humanitarian circumstances.

In a letter Wednesday to Biden, the Democrats call for enacting temporary protections for Palestinians through government programs that shield immigrants from returning to countries that are ravaged by natural disasters or war. The lawmakers cite the rising death toll in Gaza, especially among children, from the month-long Israel-Hamas war and the lack of food and water.

“In light of ongoing armed conflict, Palestinians already in the United States should not be forced to return to the Palestinian territories, consistent with President Biden's stated commitment to protecting Palestinian civilians,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, provided to The Associated Press in advance of its release.

The letter is a notable effort from Democrats to defend and protect Palestinians at a time when leading Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and others vying for the GOP presidential nomination, have called for the U.S. to bar Palestinians attempting to escape the war in Gaza.

Last month, while campaigning in Iowa, Trump threatened to expand a travel ban on Muslims that he issued through an executive order during his presidency. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the U.S. should not take in any Palestinian refugees trying to leave Gaza because, he insisted, they “are all antisemitic.”

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, has emphasized that America has “always been sympathetic to the fact that you can separate civilians from terrorists,” which prompted DeSantis's super PAC to attack Haley on the issue.

U.S. law gives authorities broad leeway to deny people entry if they present security risks. Cases of extremists crossing into the U.S. illegally are also virtually nonexistent.

The request from Democrats to Biden would apply only to Palestinians who are already in the United States.

The U.S. issued about 7,200 temporary visas to people with Palestinian Authority passports in 2022, according to the State Department. Pointing to that figure, the Democrats argued that “the number of beneficiaries would be small, while the benefit could be lifesaving.

The request, signed by just over 100 lawmakers, is led by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration policy. It is also signed by Sens. Jack Reed, who leads the Armed Services Committee, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. About 70 House Democrats signed, including Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

Temporary Protected Status is a program through the Department of Homeland Security that provides provisional residency, including the ability to work, to non-U.S. citizens currently here whose home countries are deemed too dangerous for them to return. The lawmakers also ask Biden to use Deferred Enforced Departure, a program similar to TPS that is used at a president's discretion.

Similar protections have been issued in the past, the lawmakers say. For instance, the U.S. offered temporary protected status for residents of Kosovo amid armed conflict in 1998. At the time, Kosovo was a province of Serbia and did not declare independence until 2008.