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Trump Isn’t the Only One Upset About the Border Talks

Democrats say Latinos and border-state lawmakers should be in the negotiations.

Border agents patrol the U.S. border wall in Nogales, AZ.
Border agents patrol the U.S. border wall in Nogales, AZ. Charlie Riedel/AP

A bipartisan group of senators say they are close to reaching a deal that could define the future of immigration and border security in the United States. But some notable voices are missing from the conversation.

The working group, led by three senators, Oklahoma Republican James Lankford, Arizona Independent Kyrsten Sinema and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, does not include any Latino lawmakers, and Sinema is the only senator in the group from a state that touches the southern border. That reality, as well as the closed-door nature of the negotiations, has rankled both Democrats and Republicans left out of the talks.

“I think if the group was more inclusive, and what we heard was at the table was more thoughtful and truly solution-oriented, we could have made progress by now,” California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla told NOTUS on Thursday, noting that Latino lawmakers should have been more involved from the beginning, as well as Democrats from border states.

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján echoed the concerns.

“Having more members work on issues is always positive, and especially in this case, where issues that are being discussed are directly about the southern border,” he said. “Now, they were not, whether from the White House or the group.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have been angered by the secrecy around negotiations, which have been held in private settings between the small Senate working group and the White House.

“One thing that bothers me is we don’t have text. We’re all U.S. senators. We oughta be able to be sitting there negotiating. We oughta be able to tell them what our thoughts are,” Florida’s Rick Scott said in a Wednesday press conference with other Republican senators.

States along the southern border have experienced the most strain from the influx of undocumented migrants. U.S. Customs and Border Protection records show most of the crossings that have happened so far this fiscal year have occurred in Tuscon, Arizona, Del Rio, Texas and San Diego. Yet, no representatives from Texas or California have been actively involved in the negotiations.

The working group has consulted Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Texas Republican, who has a large portion of the southern border in his district. But Gonzales said he is still not sure whether he’ll support the final agreement.

“I think the devils are in the details and we will see what the text looks like,” he said.

Other than Gonzales, many House members, including those who represent districts along the border or who are in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have been left out of the negotiations.

“People with expertise in these areas and people who represent these communities that are impacted by the humanitarian crisis deserve to have a seat at the table,” Democratic Rep. Gabe Vasquez, who represents Las Cruces, near the New Mexico-Mexico border, said. “Of course, we are in a Congress that prefers seniority over experience sometimes, and it is very frustrating.”

“I think the process should have involved the Congressional Hispanic Caucus more,” Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, who represents part of San Antonio, said, noting that many caucus members are from Texas. “Texas should have an important voice.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in December that Biden officials have been in “constant communication” with Democrats and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and are aware of their concerns.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, together with other progressives, organized a press conference to urge the Biden administration to resist conservative immigration priorities as senators inch closer to a compromise. Immigration groups have joined progressives in criticizing their efforts, taking particular aim at the White House for making concessions to Republicans on border policies.

“What the Senate Republicans are proposing, that’s not going to change the dynamic at the border,” Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso, Texas, said. “It’s been really frustrating to see the Senate try to tackle the narrowest component of what needs to be addressed.”

Conservative Republicans, meanwhile, are under the heat as well, as former President Donald Trump has railed against the deal, calling it a “Gift to the Radical Left Democrats.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly acknowledged this political pressure from Trump in a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans, though members of the working group gave assurances that they would continue to negotiate.

Still, the deal has its Republican detractors. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the negotiations really just represented an intraparty fight between Senate and House GOP members, with Speaker Mike Johnson saying any additional funding to Ukraine or Israel had to be tied to a border security bill.

“This bill represents Senate Republican leadership waging war on House Republican leadership. It’s not designed to secure the border and it won’t secure the border,” Cruz said Wednesday. “And that’s why leadership wants it kept in secret.”

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The House passed its own border security bill, which included limitations on migrants granted parole, building more of the border wall and changing the standards to qualify for asylum. But it would almost certainly fail to pass the Democratic majority in the Senate. Johnson has disparaged the Senate working group’s talks, noting in a Friday letter to House Republicans that everything he’s heard about what’s in the border deal would be “dead on arrival” in the House.

“Why isn’t the House part of this negotiation? We have a Republican House. We should not be voting for anything as Republicans in the Senate, if the Republicans in the House don’t support it,” Scott said.

That said, not every lawmaker has felt so excluded. Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn said he has received updates on the talks. “We’re talking to Senator Lankford, and he’s briefing us on what the discussions are,” he said.

“Ultimately, it’s not going to be any individual’s decision, it’s going to be a collective decision as Republicans,” he added.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he felt Latino lawmakers have no special claim to immigration as an issue.

“I don’t know about the Latino member thing mattering because immigration is not a Latino issue. It’s an American issue. It has to do with the United States and the sovereignty of our country and the security of our border,” he said.

Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.