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What the immigration bill's spectacular collapse means for Maine

Children play under cots set up in the summer of 2019 at the Portland Expo to accommodate a wave of hundreds of asylum seekers.
Julie Pike
Maine Public
Children play under cots set up in the summer of 2019 at the Portland Expo to accommodate a wave of hundreds of asylum seekers.

Bowing to pressure from former President Donald Trump, a majority of Republicans in the U.S. Senate this week helped torpedo the bipartisan immigration bill that would have restricted and overhauled the asylum process while giving the president clear authority to close the border.

The failure to advance the bill after four months of negotiations ensures that immigration will remain a key campaign issue in the 2024 presidential and congressional election with possible implications for down ballot contests in state legislatures.

Nationally, the fallout from Wednesday’s failure to advance the $118 billion national security bill, which originally included aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, highlights dysfunction that threatens to make the 118th Congress the least productive in more than a half century — with fewer than 30 bills passed last year — and illustrates Trump’s ongoing influence on Republican lawmakers, some of whom helped tank the compromise bill to strengthen his election campaign.

Locally, the reaction from Maine’s congressional delegation dwelled on a missed opportunity to reform an asylum process that has created a three-million-case backlog in U.S. immigration courts while state and local governments scramble to assist asylum seekers who are not allowed to apply for work permits until six months after their arrival.

The delegation, as well as state lawmakers, have pushed to ease the current work restriction. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, negotiated a provision in the immigration bill that would have allowed asylum seekers to apply for permits immediately as long as they pass a pre-screening process.

“The legislation is by no means perfect, but it would address our border humanitarian and national security crisis and is a substantial improvement over the chaos and lawlessness that characterize the border now,” Collins said in a statement before Wednesday’s vote.

Collins was one of four Republicans who voted to advance the proposal along with most Democrats.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine, who also supported the proposal, noted that the union representing U.S. Border Patrol agents endorsed the bill. The same union backed Trump for president, citing his hardline immigration stance.

King told MSNBC’s Morning Joe this week that Republicans were scuttling the bill for campaign purposes.

“It looks like what’s happening — and this is certainly coming from Mr. Trump — is they want the issue, not the solution,” King said. “So, they want the chaos at the border in order to hammer Joe Biden, hammer the Democrats in the fall.”

What was in the bill?

The proposal was viewed by some Democrats and immigration advocates as restrictive. The conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board viewed it that way, too, and urged its passage.

“By any honest reckoning, this is the most restrictive migrant legislation in decades,” the board wrote this week.

Part of that view stemmed from the proposal’s overhaul of the asylum process. Under current law, migrants can seek asylum after crossing the border by claiming they fear persecution in their home country. They are then assigned a hearing date and released into the U.S. However, the aforementioned backlog to adjudicate asylum claims can take years.

The bill aimed to accelerate that process by making migrants show more evidence that they have a “reasonable possibility” of qualifying for asylum during the first phase of the screening process. Migrants who don’t clear the initial screening would be deported, while those who do would be given a work permit until their case is heard by an immigration judge. (Immigration advocates worried that the expedited process would not allow migrants to make full cases for asylum.)

Additionally, the bill spent $4 billion to hire more than 4,000 asylum officers who would settle cases within 90 days after asylum seekers clear the initial screening.

The proposal would also limit crossings under certain circumstances and give the president clear authority to close it when migrant crossings reach 4,000 per day over a seven-day period.

Some Republicans have claimed that the president already has that authority, but immigration attorneys and bill supporters say the reality is more complicated, citing efforts by Biden — and Trump — to curb migration that were challenged in court. The now-scuttled bill would have given the president emergency authority to close the border under the conditions mentioned above.

Overall, the border provision in the spending bill included $20 billion for asylum and border patrol officials, while also expanding detention centers and screening for illicit drugs.

Border politics

Four months ago, Republicans in the Senate insisted that the Democratic majority include border security in its bill providing foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Democratic leaders reluctantly accepted the demand because they have a narrow majority and need GOP votes to pass the foreign aid bill.

Some Democrats warned that the GOP would never bargain in good faith, lest they surrender an issue that might be useful to them and Trump in the 2024 election. Trump’s ascendance in the Republican Party can be partially attributed to his hardline immigration stance and rhetoric.

A Gallup tracking poll from last year showed that a majority of Americans view immigration positively, but there was a noticeable uptick in respondents who wanted more restrictions, especially at the southern border.

Additionally, news reports about the struggles of local officials, including some in Maine, to house and care for an influx of migrants became more persistent. At the same time, efforts to accommodate new arrivals have been framed by some GOP politicians as a binary choice between migrants and U.S. citizens.

Democrats’ misgivings faded slightly as bipartisan talks began. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford was appointed the lead GOP negotiator, which was considered a sign that Republicans might be serious about a compromise.

But as details of the deal emerged, Trump and his surrogates ramped up their criticism, targeting GOP lawmakers who considered supporting the proposal. Lankford described the campaign as rampant with misinformation and threats.

“I had a popular commentator that told me flat out, 'If you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you. Because I do not want you to solve this during the presidential election,’” Lankford said before Wednesday’s vote.

Lankford added that the unnamed commentator had delivered on his promise.

President Biden, meanwhile, promised to make the reason for the bill’s failure known to the American public.

“Every day between now and November the American people are going to know the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends,” he said. “It’s time for Republicans in Congress to show a little courage, to show a little spine, to make clear to the American people that you work for them, not for anyone else.”

Local election implications

Like many states, Maine is suffering the ramifications of the dual crises on immigration — the crisis playing out daily along the southern border and the political crisis caused by a hyperpartisan Congress unable or unwilling to fix a broken system.

Municipalities in Maine, particularly in Greater Portland, are struggling to accommodate the thousands of asylum seekers who have made their way from Central America to northern New England. Those migrants are straining welfare and social services programs already facing high demand for assistance from Maine residents amid soaring inflation and housing costs.

So it’s not surprising that the rhetoric over immigration is also growing more heated and partisan within state politics. Most notably, Republican lawmakers are clearly signaling their plans to make immigration — and particularly Maine’s response to the surge of asylum seekers — a campaign issue headed into the November elections.

“Under current leadership, Maine has rolled out the red carpet and turned into the northernmost all-inclusive resort for anyone and everyone,” Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle said during last week’s Republican response to the governor’s State of the State address. “Free new housing, free health care, free food — you name it, we’re giving it away, all courtesy of the good, hardworking folks of Maine.”

More than 1,000 asylum seekers arrived in Portland alone between January and April of last year. Many more arrived in other towns and cities in southern Maine. That has placed an undeniable strain on local social services programs.

House Republican Leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham accused Mills and Democrats of prioritizing those asylum seekers over Mainers in need.

“We have this group of undocumented immigrants that have seemed to just skip the line and are getting two years of free housing in brand new apartments,” Faulkingham said.

That “free housing” refers to the transitional and permanent housing that the Mills administration has helped towns and cities provide to primarily asylum seeking families, typically in hotel rooms or apartments. For instance, the state budgeted roughly $2 million to cover up to two years of rent for families at new, affordable housing apartments in Brunswick.

“I know a lot of people in my neck of the woods that are struggling — people that are living in way-too-crowded environments,” Faulkingham said. “Families that are living in trailers with tarps over the top of them, (who) can’t afford to live, that would love to have some free housing for them, too.”

The mythical 75,000 workers Republicans are also suggesting that this is part of a master plan by Mills to lure 75,000 immigrants into the state. Here just one recent example:

“Gov. Mills announced the creation of a state office of immigration to further her goal of attracting 75,000 new migrants to our state,” Rep. Tiffany Strout, R-Harrington, said in a recent Republican radio address.

That’s a mischaracterization, however — or at least an oversimplification.

A 10-year economic development plan for Maine released in 2019 said the state would need to bring in 75,000 new workers over the decade to counterbalance the 65,000 workers expected to leave the workforce as Baby Boomers retire. But neither the report nor Mills have said those new workers should all be immigrants.

Instead, the report lists “new Americans” as one potential pool of workers. Other pools included some of the estimated 100,000 working-age Mainers who were not part of the workforce, young families and professionals working in other states and graduates of Maine colleges who often leave the state for jobs elsewhere.

But Mills clearly regards immigrants as a partial answer to the workforce challenges facing the state with the nation’s oldest population.

“For generations, immigrants have brought their skills, education and ability to Maine to build a better life for themselves and their families, contribute to the vitality of our communities and become the workforce that our employers in Maine desperately need,” Mills said last summer when announcing plans for and Office of New Americans. “That is as true today as it was a century ago.”

Of course, tensions over immigration have bubbled to the political surface in Augusta many times before.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage attempted to cut off asylum seekers’ access to the municipal-administered welfare program known as general assistance. Then-Attorney General Mills blocked several of those attempts and then refused to represent the administration on immigration-related cases in federal court.

When Mills became governor, she rolled back LePage’s restrictions on asylum seekers’ access to general assistance and publicly welcomed the new arrivals.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.