Voices: Progressives warn Biden about using immigrants as a ‘bargaining chip’ for Ukraine

Voices: Progressives warn Biden about using immigrants as a ‘bargaining chip’ for Ukraine

And just like that, the first year of the 118th Congress came to a close. With no aid to Ukraine on the horizon, no aid to Israel, no potential breakthrough negotiations on spending bills and no aid to Gaza, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives rewarded itself by leaving for the holidays. Many people will remember this year in Congress for the 15 rounds it took for Kevin McCarthy to become speaker, Rep Matt Gaetz (R-FL) subsequently ejecting him from the chair thanks to some help from a handful of conservatives and every Democrat; the mayhem of 22 days without a speaker and the dubious conclusion to George Santos’s half-term.

Still, underneath all of that an animating trend emerged about how Congress would govern: a must-pass piece of legislation would approach its deadline, Republicans would make a series of wildly unreasonable demands for it, Republican leadership would go to the White House or Democratic leadership and the Democratic rank-and-file would vote for it even if they did not like every part of it. This was the case with the debt limit compromise and the two stop-gap spending bills that kept the government open this year.

Progressives may have finally reached their limit with the recent negotiations with Ukraine, though. To recap, Republicans have voiced their strong opposition to supporting Ukraine in its attempt to push back against Russian President Vladimir Putin, demanding that it be tied to measures to curb illegal immigration from the US-Mexico border, but also to curb legal immgiration measures such as asylum. After some prodding from Republicans, President Joe Biden has entered into negotiations in hopes of salvaging aid to Ukraine.

But that might scramble the political arithmetic needed to pass Ukraine aid. That’s because not only would Republicans in the House reject anything that is not their proposed bill called the Secure the Border Act, but now, plenty of members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are voicing their frustration.

Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who won her primary in 2018 largely on the back of critiquing the US immigration system, told The Independent that she would vote “no” on such a measure, saying it is a mistake to tie foreign policy to domestic policy demands.

Rep Greg Casar of Texas, the whip for the progressive caucus whose district is an hour-and-a-half drive to the border, told The Independent that there is no appetite among progressives for such a package. He added that GOP proposals would make it harder for people to legally migrate to the United States, which would make illegal immigration worse.

“It's craziness and what we shouldn't be doing is making the immigration process worse, giving Republicans a Trump style win under Biden,” he said. “There is just going to be more disorder and more things for Fox News cameras to film so it's a lose, lose, lose for Democrats.”

Furthermore, he added that such a measure would harm Mr Biden in the 2024 election.

“He ran against Trump style immigration policy,” Mr Casar said. “I don't know how I or anybody else would explain why he would sign it into law.”

Rep Maxwell Frost of Florida, the first Afro-Cuban member of Congress and whose mother sought asylum in the United States, went even further.

“The thing is that immigrants oftentimes in this place are a bargaining chip,” he told The Independent. Unlike some progressive members of Congress, Mr Frost enjoys a more comfortable relationship with the White House, collaborating with Mr Biden on trying to end gun violence. But his break with the White House shows the depth of dissatisfaction.

Unlike in the past, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has much larger numbers that the White House can no longer neglect, at more than a hundred strong. A unified front, or even a significant chunk, would impede the ability for a Ukraine package to pass.

The Senate side is more mixed. Sen Bob Menendez of New Jersey has long been the biggest defender of the rights of immigrants and railed against the administration’s proposal to trade migrant rights for Ukraine aid.

But his influence has significantly diminished in the light of the federal investigation and indictment that prompted many Democrats to call for him to resign.

Similarly, Sen Alex Padilla of California, who represents a state with a large Hispanic population and who was motivated to get into politics thanks to anti-immigrant fearmongering in the 1990s, has voiced opposition. But as a freshman Senator who just won a full term last year after being appointed to fill Kamala Harris’s seat, he lacks the influence of his peers.

Similarly Sen Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico expressed significant concern.

“I have concerns with what ... is rumored to be part of policy that the White House made,” he said. At the same time, he did not commit to voting one way or another.

The White House desperately wants some kind of aid for Ukraine, as Mr Biden displayed when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to Washington. As of Thursday afternoon, it was not entirely clear whether the Senate would leave for the holidays (ironic considering the upper chamber’s reputation for a lackadaisical calendar).

But it might have finally found the issue that has would make progressives balk. Seeing immigrants become the bargaining chip Mr Frost described might be enough to force Mr Biden to break even.