Senate Passions Flare as Graham Pushes Divisive Immigration Bill

WASHINGTON (CN) – Republican Senator Lindsey Graham broke longstanding congressional rules Thursday to advance a complete overhaul of U.S. asylum requirements, a bill that would authorize the United States to detain immigrant children indefinitely.

All Republicans on the committee voted in favor of Graham’s amendment to the Secure and Protect Act of 2019, legislation the GOP argues will stem the flow of immigrants coming across the southern border of the United States and deter future asylum requests.

No Democrats voted in favor of the amendment.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined at left by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., rips a copy of the committee rules of procedure Thursday as he charges current Republican Chairman Lindsey Graham with breaking the rules to bend to President Donald Trump on immigration policy. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Now that the bill has been vaulted through the committee, it goes on to the full Senate where odds are slim that it will achieve the 60 votes necessary to pass.

Graham forced the bill through during a tense hour-long business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, with the chamber set on Friday to break for a long August recess.

Complaining that the amendment has been back-burnered for seven weeks, Graham said he felt spurned by Democrats who skipped a business meeting last week when the amendment was on the legislative agenda.  According to rules of the committee, at least two members of the minority must be present to consider bills or the matter must be held over until the next meeting.

During last week’s session, the South Carolina Republican was unable to hold the bill over.

“Last week you chose not to show up … You may not like it. You can vote no. But this committee is not going to be a dead-end committee on things that matter,” Graham said. “I hope its bipartisan but if it’s not, we’re going deal with the nation’s problems anyway.”

Graham refused when Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, asked him to reconsider and hold the bill until September. Vermont Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy physically ripped up a copy of committee rules at another point, saying the committee was little more than a “conveyor belt of ultra-partisan ideas.”

“It is under the thumb and control of Donald Trump,” Leahy said. “This is supposed to be the Senate Judiciary Committee not the Donald Trump Committee.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, listens to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member, Thursday at the start of a contentious markup in his panel to change asylum laws as a way to address the migrant crisis at the southern border, but without input from the Democrats. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

All Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee except California Senator Diane Feinstein missed last week’s hearing. Senator Leahy was unavailable due to a death in the family. As for the rest, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin offered little explanation for the absence during Thursday’s hearing.

Since no business took place last week anyway, Durbin argued, the time to entertain the amendment in good faith – and work on a bipartisan bill that could actually pass in the Senate – was after recess, in September.

Graham refused to budge. Democrats balked.

“The bill doesn’t fix problems, it makes them worse,” Feinstein said. “The Graham bill will eliminate Flores settlement protections, repeal provisions that ensure government facilities hold minimum standards like providing clean drinking water and safe and sanitary conditions …and it makes the Department of Homeland Security the sole authority to determine what standards should be for holding children and makes that policy unreviewable by a court. I question whether such a policy could withstand legal challenge.”

The amendment proposes extending the number of days a family can be detained from 20 to 100 days.

Though Republicans argue it would stop family separations, Democrats note it would also open the door to indefinite detention of children.

The bill mandates asylum claims be filed in Mexico or another country besides the U.S.

It would also give the Department of Homeland Security the authority to conduct new asylum interview processes without court review. They would be administered by a Customs and Border Protection officer instead.

“Unaccompanied children would be detained and unlikely to have access to counsel or the ability to gather evidence to support their application,” Feinstein said. “And if CBP decides the children are not eligible for asylum, they would be subject to immediate deportation. The bill states ‘no court shall have jurisdiction to review a determination made by the secretary. I’ve never heard that before.”

The changes posed by the amendment are major shifts to existing asylum laws.

For example, children who have been abused by a member of their family are currently eligible for a special immigrant juvenile status visa in the United States. It is issued only if a state court can find a child has been mistreated by one parent.

But under the Graham’s bill, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security would have authority to review such a family court decision, determine eligibility for asylum and force a child to prove that abuse stemmed from both parents, not just one.

The bill also bans entry to the U.S. by anyone from a nation that has a refugee-processing center or is considered “contiguous” to said nation.

The practical effect would mean immigrants seeking asylum from most Central American countries, where political unrest and violence has spurred the ongoing crisis at the border, would be barred.

Senator Mazie Hirono summed up Democratic opposition to the amendment before the committee wrapped up the hearing abruptly.

“This bill creates a law that prohibits administrative decisions to be reviewed by a court,” the Hawaii senator said. “This gives so much power to administrative decision making, in a word, it is nuts. And probably unconstitutional.”

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