By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved Republican legislation intended to stop immigrants and illegal drugs crossing the nation’s southwestern border with Mexico, leaving it to the Senate to attempt a broader, bipartisan immigration bill.
The package, which Democrats have warned will be blocked in the Senate, would set tight limits on asylum seekers and require them to apply for U.S. protection outside the country. It also would resume construction of a wall along the border and expand federal law enforcement efforts.
The House voted 219-213 to pass the bill, with no Democrats in favor and one Republican opposed.
“The key component of this bill is where we say, ‘If you come to our country, you will get to, according to the law, file your asylum claim…but you will be detained or you will be returned while your claim is adjudicated,'” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan during debate on the bill.
The vote occurred in anticipation of the Thursday midnight expiration of the Title 42 immigration restriction that began under former President Donald Trump in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has allowed U.S. authorities to expel migrants to Mexico without the chance to seek asylum, citing health concerns.
Officials at the southwestern border were seeing large influxes of immigrants in the final days of Title 42 expiration.
“My Republican colleagues are trying to take us back to the failed, illegal and immoral policies of the Trump administration,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary panel.
“This bill serves as a wholesale ban on asylum. No one would be able to seek asylum in the United States if they cross between ports of entry or if they had or could have had even temporary status in a third country,” Nadler added.
While the House bill is not expected to get to President Joe Biden’s desk for signing into law, there are hopes in the Senate that it will spark negotiations for a bipartisan, comprehensive border security and immigration reform measure in coming months.
Independent Senator Krysten Sinema told reporters hours before the House vote that the Republican bill would open the way to shaping a “final package” to address not only border security but also reforms to the U.S. asylum system and the manner in which visas are doled out.
Over the past three decades, meaningful immigration reforms have been unsuccessful in Congress. As Biden gears up for re-election next year, the large numbers of people seeking asylum in the United States have raised voter awareness.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week found 54% of respondents, including 77% of Republicans and 34% of Democrats, opposed opening the border to more immigrants every year and only 26% said they approved of Biden’s handling of immigration.
But even within the Republican Party there are some divisions over immigration policy.
House Republican leaders at the last minute had to modify provisions of their bill for the U.S. agriculture industry to comply with “E-Verify” requirements for confirming U.S. employment eligibility. Some Republican lawmakers worried a previous version would have made hiring immigrant farm workers too cumbersome.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)