A bipartisan group of senators is working to orchestrate a two-year extension of an expiring pandemic-era expulsion authority that allows officials to speedily send migrants out of the United States, in a long-shot bid to head off an expected influx of border crossings when the policy ends next week.
The measure has little chance of advancing in the closely divided Senate, but its emergence this week demonstrates how profoundly partisan gridlock on a broader immigration overhaul has paralyzed Congress. It also reflects a last-ditch sense of desperation on the part of some members to try any step to prevent problems at the border from growing far worse.
The authors, Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who recently changed her affiliation from Democrat to independent, and Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, have for months been at the center of efforts to strike a deal on a comprehensive and bipartisan immigration overhaul.
The looming expiration of the pandemic-era policy known as Title 42, which includes the expedited expulsion authority, has long been a part of their strategy, providing a deadline of sorts they hoped would force Congress to act on immigration. Last year, the pair tried and failed to galvanize support for combining the extension with a series of border security enhancements and a pathway to citizenship for migrants unlawfully brought to the United States as children.
This year, senators have so far failed to agree on a compromise, and with only a week to go before the end of Title 42 — which experts believe will prompt a significant influx of border crossings — they are opting for a significantly slimmed-down approach. The legislation, reported earlier by Politico, would extend for two years a mandate that officials immediately send migrants back to Mexico or their country of origin — but with an additional exemption for asylum claims, in which individuals cite threats of torture, or to their life or freedom, if they are sent back. The exemption would also apply to all people, including unaccompanied minors, who have been considered exempt under Title 42.
Senators in both parties expressed opposition to the plan on Thursday, suggesting it could not draw the necessary support to move forward.
“It doesn’t solve the problem,” Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, who has been working with Ms. Sinema and Mr. Tillis to cobble together a comprehensive immigration overhaul, said of the proposed fix, arguing that the asylum exemption made it ineffective. “It doesn’t close the loophole.”
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who has also been working with the pair on immigration legislation, said he had not signed on to their latest, bare-bones proposal.
“We’re all scrambling to try to figure out how to help the administration deal with what is likely going to be overwhelming,” he said.
Ms. Sinema and Mr. Tillis presented the legislation, which is backed by Senators John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, as a way to buy time for the Biden administration to put a feasible alternative to Title 42 in place.
“Despite our repeated calls, the Biden administration failed to plan ahead and implement a realistic, workable plan,” Ms. Sinema said in a statement.
The administration still has other authorities to expel migrants. It is also exploring new policies to filter people through regional processing centers and with rules that would make asylum seekers ineligible unless they had sought humanitarian protection outside the United States.
On Wednesday, a group of Republicans led by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sent a letter to President Biden pleading with him not to curtail his expulsion authority as planned.
“We shudder to think about how much worse the situation at the border would have been over the past three years had it not been for the deterrent effect of Title 42,” the group wrote.
Also on Wednesday, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Lankford sent a letter to Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, appealing to him to expedite court orders for migrants in custody to help clear a mounting case backlog before it balloons.
The calls come as Republicans are preparing next week to push through a sweeping bill to revive and codify Trump-era border initiatives to keep migrants in detention or outside the United States, policies they argue will help reduce inflows. The legislation is timed to pass just before Title 42 expires.
But none of the measures can draw bipartisan support. The House bill is a dead letter in the Senate, where the Democratic majority wants to see border enforcement measures paired with initiatives to expand and streamline avenues to legal immigration.
The notion of extending Title 42 on its own is equally anathema to Democrats. Last December, they banded together to reject a proposal from Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, that would have forbid the administration from ending the expulsion authority.