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Senate continues to work on immigration and foreign aid deal

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The House of Representatives is already on holiday break while the Senate is sticking around for a few more days. It's aiming to pass an aid package for Ukraine and Israel proposed by the White House. But Republicans in Congress say they will only sign off on that if that spending is bundled with new policy restrictions on immigration. Now the White House and Democrats in the Senate are engaging Republicans to get that immigration compromise done. And among those negotiating is Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. I spoke to him earlier today.

MICHAEL BENNET: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: Let's talk about some of the specific immigration proposals. Republicans want to see changes that would make it harder to claim asylum here in the U.S. How willing are you to support some of the changes that they are pushing? I mean...

BENNET: Well...

CHANG: These include making it easier to - simply shutting the border or making it easier for officials to detain and deport migrants who don't have necessarily credible asylum claims at the beginning. What are you willing to consider?

BENNET: I mean, what I would say is I don't want to negotiate the specifics of the deal in public because the negotiations are going on right now. But I think we do have an opportunity to fashion a system of immigration in the United States, again, that's actually a strength for our country, which, historically, it has been. And today, it's a huge pain point for the United States because we haven't been able to reach any bipartisan agreement on any of this. I was part of the Gang of Eight in 2013 that...

CHANG: Right.

BENNET: ...Wrote the last Congress...

CHANG: That failed in the House. Yeah.

BENNET: Exactly. The whole country's history would be different today had the Freedom Caucus not been allowed to veto that bill that dealt not just with border security, although it did - $40 billion worth of border security - had a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people that are here already. It had the most progressive DREAMer...

CHANG: So what is on the table for you, Senator Bennet...

BENNET: Well, what's on the table for me...

CHANG: ...That maybe was not on the table for you...

BENNET: Yeah. What's on the table for me...

CHANG: ...Ten years ago, specifically?

BENNET: ...Is to recognize that the American people don't want transnational gangs setting the border policy of the United States. What's on the table for me is making sure that, as we make an agreement with the Republicans, we make an agreement that's consistent with our commitment to the rule of law and consistent to our aspirations. And I believe we are not going to get to a lot of the major issues that we're facing in our immigration system today. But my hope is that once we get through this moment - and we've got to do the Ukraine funding and the other issues that are related at the end of the year - that it will remind everybody of why having a functioning immigration system in the United States is so important and that we can have Democrats and Republicans of good will work together.

CHANG: Is there a specific proposal that you support that would effectively address, in your mind, the challenges raised by the sizable influx of migrants at the Southern border...

BENNET: Well, I think today...

CHANG: ...In the last few years?

BENNET: ...The fact that - I would say, first, the $14 billion that Joe Biden has put in his supplemental package, which I think has been completely forgotten by everybody - that's more money than we're proposing to send to Israel and is clearly a reflection of what you're seeing on the Southern border right now, which is people today, when they arrive at the border and claim asylum, have no processing, really, of any kind and then are basically told to show up four or five or six years from now for their hearing on asylum. That is not acceptable to the American people, and we have to find a way to have a better process than that.

CHANG: To any immigrant advocates out there who suspect there are real humanitarian concerns with some of the proposed immigration policy changes that are being discussed right now, what would you say to those advocates?

BENNET: There is a deep, deep concern on a lot of people's part, including mine, that we don't do fundamental damage to America's asylum process. That's very important. On the other hand, I think it is important to recognize that when people were claiming asylum in the Obama years, in far fewer numbers than they are claiming asylum today because of the way that the gangs have moved people across the planet, we have to adjust to address that. And we've got to be able to consider that reality, in part for people that shouldn't - whose claim of asylum is absolutely legitimate and should not have to wait four or five or six years to have that claim of asylum adjudicated in the United States of America, who shouldn't have to wait for years and years and years for a work permit to be able to work. All of that is a reason why we have to find a way to work together on these issues not just in the next week or two but for the next - for the coming years.

CHANG: Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. Thank you very much for joining us today.

BENNET: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: Elsewhere in our conversation, Senator Bennet said any deal on immigration and on foreign aid would likely happen in January at the earliest. He said that that was tragic but could still minimize the damage done to Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tyler Bartlam
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.