WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday opened the door to addressing the nation’s immigration problems through bipartisan legislation that he said should include changes to asylum law.
Speaking to reporters before the start of a two-week Senate recess, McConnell noted the “crisis” at the southern border with Mexico and said, “I think it’s long past due for us to sit down on a bipartisan basis and try to fix as much of this problem as we can.”
With the numbers of Central American migrants surging at the U.S.-Mexico border, President Donald Trump earlier this year declared a national emergency. That, he argued, would allow him to take federal funds and use them to build a wall to repel undocumented immigrants. He took the step after Congress refused to give him $5.7 billion for the construction.
But McConnell said that bolstering border security would not fully address immigration ills.
“That doesn’t solve the asylum issue. That can’t be solved I don’t think without some kind of statutory adjustment of some kind or another,” McConnell said.
Asked whether he has spoken to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer about working on a wide-ranging immigration bill, McConnell said, “Well yeah. We’re talking about a variety of different things and we’ll see what happens.”
Schumer aides were not immediately available for comment. Earlier in the day at a news conference, Schumer did not list immigration as one of the issues he thought could be addressed by the Senate this year.
U.S. officers arrested or denied entry to over 103,000 people along the border with Mexico in March, a 35 percent increase over the prior month and more than twice as many as the same period last year, according to data released on Tuesday.
The Trump administration and leading Senate Republicans have called for moving Central American asylum cases more quickly through the legal system and setting an easier standard for deportations.
But toughening U.S. asylum law is likely to face stiff opposition from Democrats in Congress and from immigration advocacy groups.
Democrat Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees immigration policy, earlier this week said it was “unlikely” he would support such changes to asylum law.
“But I’m always willing to hear constructive ideas and proposals. That is a particularly difficult area,” Coons said in a brief interview outside the Senate chamber.
Asked what other immigration problems could be addressed in a bipartisan negotiation, McConnell did not specify saying, “That’s what a negotiation produces, some kind of understanding of how many of these different issues you can get agreement to solve.”
At the top of Democrats’ list is providing permanent legal protections from deportation for hundreds of thousands of “dreamers.” They are undocumented immigrant youths who were brought to the United States when they were under the age of 18, many as infants or toddlers.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, also in hallway interviews this week, said he has asked the White House to provide detailed changes it would want in asylum legislation.
“They were supposed to get it to me last week. I don’t know what has happened,” said Graham, who has developed close ties to Trump.
Gregory Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that instead of toughening U.S. asylum law, Congress and the Trump administration should invest in more orderly screening of undocumented immigrants and improve infrastructure at ports of entry.
Asked whether asylum law also needs to be changed, Chen said, “In a word, no. We already have very strict and narrow definitions” of who should qualify.
Altering it in the way some Republicans are discussing, Chen said in a phone interview this week, could put migrant children in jeopardy if they are sent back to their native countries, some of which have the highest levels of violent crime in the world.
Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Dan Grebler and Bill Berkrot