Feb 6, 2024

The Senate's border bill.

Plus, Tangle is coming to New York City!

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Today, we're breaking down the Senate's border bill. Plus, Tangle live is coming to New York City!

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Quick hits.

  1. Southern California is experiencing record rainfall, which has knocked out power to over a million households and killed at least three people from downed trees. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a state of emergency. (The rain
  2. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in an effort to push forward a potential hostage deal between Israel and Hamas. Israel said one-fifth of the remaining hostages in Gaza are dead. (The meeting
  3. CNN announced it is canceling its morning show and shaking up its anchor lineup amid declining ratings. (The change)
  4. Jury deliberations began in the Michigan trial of the mother of a convicted mass shooter, the first parent to face charges for their child’s mass shooting in the U.S. (The trial
  5. King Charles III was diagnosed with cancer and will postpone public engagements during his treatment. (The diagnosis
  6. BREAKING: A federal appeals court unanimously rejected former President Donald Trump’s claim of absolute immunity, saying he must stand trial on allegations he attempted to subvert the 2020 election. (The ruling

Today's topic.

The Senate's border and foreign aid bill. On Sunday, Senate negotiators released the text of their $118 billion bill aimed at improving security on the U.S.-Mexico border while providing funding for Ukraine and Israel.

The bill, negotiated by Sens. James Lankford (R-OK), Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), attempts to close loopholes in the asylum process; provides new funding for judges, asylum officers, and border patrol agents; limits the use of parole for migrants at the border; and gives the president new authority for shutting the border down when attempted crossings are too high.

Republicans accomplished some of their long-standing policy goals with the bill, such as raising the standards for accepting asylum claims and creating a new system intended to process requests in under 90 days. Adults would likely be detained or given a monitoring bracelet for the entirety of that process, and unaccompanied minors would be exempt. If approved, it would be the first comprehensive immigration reform legislation to pass Congress in decades.

Democrats also won a number of priorities, including adding thousands more family-based and employment-based visas, granting a pathway to citizenship for thousands of Afghan refugees evacuated during the U.S. withdrawal in 2021, allowing work authorization for spouses of U.S. citizens waiting for immigrant visas, and guaranteeing access to legal counsel for child migrants.

Additionally, the bill allows the federal government to "shut down" the border by immediately rejecting asylum seekers through a process modeled after the Trump-era Title 42 bill. The shutdown would be allowable if crossings surpass a daily average of 4,000 for seven days and would become mandatory if the daily average reaches 5,000 crossings per day for a week. That benchmark has been met every week but one for the last four months, and if the bill were passed today it would immediately trigger a shutdown. 

Though the bill describes this scenario as a shutdown, 1,400 appointments a day would remain available to asylum seekers who apply through the government's CBP One app or enter through a legal port. The bill also grants the president the power to waive this requirement.

The text of the 370-page bill is here and a summary is here.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) said the bill was "dead on arrival" in the House and former President Donald Trump has been criticizing the bill harshly since before the text was released. Many Senate Republicans also said they would not support the bill before the text was released, and some misrepresented its content before its details were made public. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is supportive of the bill, conceded it faces headwinds because it is now an election year and has suggested giving Republicans more time to read the bill’s content.

Polling shows voters strongly disapprove of President Biden's handling of the border. In a statement, Biden said Congress should “get it to my desk so I can sign it into law immediately."

While the package is being sold as a border security measure, the money granted by the bill primarily goes to foreign aid. It includes $60 billion of assistance for Ukraine, $14 billion for Israel, $4.83 billion for the Indo-Pacific region, and $2.4 billion for operations in the Red Sea, where the Houthi rebels continue to attack merchant ships. It also directs $9.2 billion to humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza, the West Bank, and Ukraine. About $20 billion is earmarked for border policies.

In December alone, more than 300,000 migrants were recorded at the U.S.-Mexico border, the highest one-month total on record. On Monday, a Border Patrol union endorsed the deal. 

Today, we're going to cover some of the arguments about this deal from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize Republicans for their apparent opposition to legislating on an issue they’ve made central to their party platform for years.
  • Some think the GOP could be handing Democrats a political victory if they refuse to hold a vote on the bill in the House. 
  • Others are critical of the bill’s restrictionist policies, arguing that Democrats have abandoned their principles on immigration policy. 

In The Washington Post, Catherine Rampell wrote “the GOP dog caught the car.”

“After months — decades? — of running on tightening the border, House Republicans are suddenly paralyzed when offered the chance to do so,” Rampell said. “There are different ways to interpret why this much-awaited, much-desired legislation ended up, in Johnson’s words, ‘DEAD on arrival in the House’... Maybe GOP lawmakers genuinely think they should hold out for the more draconian bill they put forward last year, known as H.R. 2. There are two major problems with this strategy.

“First, H.R. 2 would not supply funding for pretty much anything that could stop border crossings. Second, it would almost certainly never become law — even if Republicans were to gain control of the White House and both chambers of Congress,” Rampell wrote. “Maybe House Republicans have convinced themselves that any legislation that could appeal to Democrats must, ipso facto, be too reasonable for them to consider. In a twist on the Groucho Marx line, they’d never belong to a club that would have anyone else as a member.”

In The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner suggested “Republican attempts to sabotage the bipartisan immigration bill may yet backfire on the far right.”

“Trump and Republican House members are determined to deny President Biden a victory, no matter what the costs to resolving the refugee crisis," Kuttner said. “The measure is far more restrictive than anything Democrats have contemplated since the original anti-immigrant law of exactly a century ago. But the border crisis is real, and so is the political and fiscal damage in blue states and cities far from the Mexican border.”

“The compromise bill is not pretty. Much better comprehensive immigration reform was nearly enacted a decade ago but was blocked by far-right Republicans,” Kuttner added. “Assuming that the bill does pass the Senate but is blocked in the House, a worsening crisis may eventually backfire on the Republicans. Biden can now say that he was willing to fix the border and support an ally from an invasion by Russia, but was cynically blocked by Trump’s minions who wanted an issue in the elections.”

In Vox, Nicole Narea said “Democrats are trying to pass a right-wing border bill, but the GOP won’t let them.”

“Some of the agreed-upon border security measures are ones that Democrats, who staked out a fairly unified position in support of immigrant rights during the Trump era, wouldn’t have dreamed of supporting a few years ago. But the aftermath of Trump’s presidency, which brought about a sharp rightward shift in the politics of immigration, and the ballooning crisis at the border have driven some moderate Democrats to abandon the party line,” Narea wrote. “These are complex problems in need of complex solutions. And the deal in the Senate does not fit that description.”

“Progressives have denounced the bill, but it’s really Trump who has all but assured that it won’t go anywhere,” Narea added. “Democrats might still ridicule Trump’s call to build a wall on the southern border. But they’re now favoring an agenda that focuses more on constructing a figurative wall, grounded in legal hurdles and new enforcement measures designed to keep migrants out, than on meaningfully reforming the immigration system.”

What the right is saying.

  • The right is largely averse to the bill, arguing there are ample reasons to reject it beyond President Trump’s opposition.
  • A smaller faction supports the bill and says it represents a win for conservatives on key border issues. 
  • Others criticize the bill for still being too lenient on asylum policy. 

In National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy argued the bill “should be rejected on the merits.” 

“The good in the bipartisan Senate negotiators’ proposal — and there definitely is some — (a) can already be accomplished under current law, and (b) would require faith that the Biden administration will for some reason enforce these provisions even though it has systematically refused to enforce existing border-security provisions. More important, to get the illusory good in the proposal, Congress would have to enact provisions in the deal that would both undermine existing statutory restrictions and etch into our law magnets for illegal immigration,” McCarthy wrote. 

Both legally and practically speaking, the border can be shut down, right this instant. There is no legal requirement that any alien who sets foot on American soil be permitted to apply for asylum (which is a discretionary act of national clemency, not a right of the alien). There is similarly no mandate that such aliens be routed into a ‘process’ that enables them to remain,” McCarthy said. “This is about national security; it shouldn’t be reduced to partisan politics, even in an election year. The bipartisan senators’ proposal is counterproductive on the merits. Congress should pressure Biden to use his existing authority to secure the border and end the crisis.” 

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it “a border security bill worth passing.”

“This is almost entirely a border security bill, and its provisions include long-time GOP priorities that the party’s restrictionists could never have passed only a few months ago. Republicans demanded border measures last year as the price for passing military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Pacific allies. Democrats resisted at first but later agreed to negotiate and have made concessions that are infuriating the open-borders left. Will Republicans now abandon what they claimed to want?,” the board wrote. 

“Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, who negotiated for the GOP, deserves thanks for digging into the policy nuances and writing a bill that Mr. Trump never came close to getting when he was President,” the board said. “Republicans may think they can write a better law if Mr. Trump wins in November, but don’t count on it. Democrats will again demand much more in return. If Republicans pass up this rare chance at border reform, they may not get a better one.”

In The Federalist, Margot Cleveland wrote “under the Senate’s atrocious border bill, everybody gets asylum.”

“The backers of the Senate bill seek to portray its provisions as, in the words of Joe Biden, the ‘toughest and fairest set of border reforms in decades.’ There is little that is ‘tough’ in the bill, however, and what is can easily be sidestepped — either by the Biden administration or the throngs of illegal aliens invading from the south,” Cleveland said. “Consider, for instance, the ‘emergency authority’ the bill would grant to the secretary of homeland security to ‘summarily remove’ aliens.”

“Beyond the flood of aliens allowed to enter the United States without triggering the emergency authority, the statutory exemptions gut the secretary’s authority. Specifically, the bill provides that the border emergency authority cannot be used against ‘an unaccompanied alien child,’ so every illegal alien who is under 18 — or can pass as someone who is under 18 — will be allowed in,” Cleveland wrote. “Is that what Congress believes is appropriate? We don’t know because the cowards prefer to leave it to the administrative state. The Senate bill proves that.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I drafted my own suggestions recently, and was heartened to see some of my biggest ones actually included — though several others were not.
  • It is truly bizarre to see all the Republicans dragging this bill, when it centers a lot more of their priorities than Democrats’.
  • It’s not perfect, but it’s a very good step, and I truly hope Congress passes it.

This is a rare moment where I just got done writing a lengthy, detailed piece on what Congress should do to solve a specific problem, and then Congress published the details of their own solution. So I think it's worth comparing my proposal to what the Senate negotiators just came up with.

My first impression is that Republicans got way more here than I expected.

After reading some commentary from conservative pundits that this bill is a "Democratic wish list," I feel like I'm living in the upside-down. This deal is a reflection of long-standing Republican priorities, not Democratic ones, and it completely ignores long-time Democratic demands like a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. Noah Rothman was one of the few pundits who seemed to see this clearly, joking in National Review that Republicans from 10 years ago would be in medical-grade shock if they got to see this bill and then found out their own party was rejecting it. Not only was a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers not included (and there was very little indication that it would be), but I was surprised at how few Democratic priorities were addressed.

That’s what didn’t make it in, though. Here are some things this bill does that I included in my compromise proposal:

  • Grants funding for judges, asylum officers, and border patrol agents
  • Speeds up processing so fewer migrants are released into the U.S. with court dates years in the future
  • Requires migrants to seek asylum in nations they passed through before entering the U.S. and to provide more evidence they could not safely live in their home country
  • Removes the executive’s ability to use humanitarian parole to grant temporary legal status to migrants at the southern border
  • Provides additional visas, including 50,000 more Green Cards, for five years
  • Directs funding to target the cartel's illicit fentanyl trade (I vaguely suggested a policy that addresses the cartel in some way)

This won’t surprise more established Tangle readers, but my favorite part of the proposal is this: "Provides $440 million to hire additional immigration judge teams, and to increase the capacity of the immigration courts to expeditiously process and adjudicate cases; and to support a longstanding program that provides legal representation for certain adults who cannot represent themselves due to serious mental or developmental disabilities."

I have long called for this kind of funding, as I think one of the fundamental issues at the border is disorder — which is caused, in large part, by the system being overwhelmed. Increasing courtroom capacity to process all migrants in a timely manner means the ones without real asylum claims will be deported while the ones with legitimate claims will get safe harbor here. This would remove incentives for huge migrant caravans to travel to our border and help relieve some pressure on the entire system.

The bill also provides funding for issues that I didn't include in my proposal, but that I think are worthy of addressing: To combat human trafficking, to process a backlog of DNA samples from migrants encountered at the border, to provide legal counsel for kids or the mentally disabled, and to cover transportation costs — either for migrants to be deported expeditiously if they don't meet asylum claims, or to be sent to cities across the U.S. where they have family members if they do.

The bill also enacts some policies that I didn't include in my proposal, but that I think are good prescriptions: The "shutdown" triggers that should help prevent daily arrivals from ever exceeding historical highs on a regular basis. The cutting of red tape for hiring U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officers, including the removal of extraneous polygraph tests, for three years. The new training requirements for Border Patrol agents that include use of non-lethal force and education about transnational criminal organizations. The pathway to citizenship for Afghan refugees who came here during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

And the bill includes one big thing that I intentionally excluded from my proposal. It is still, primarily, a foreign aid funding bill. The vast majority of its appropriations goes to Ukraine, Israel, and other foreign military support. Our southern border and these foreign military interventions should not be inextricably linked, but they are. 

Of course, there is plenty in the bill I don’t like. It empowers Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and President Biden to undermine many of its most restrictionist provisions at will, really whenever they'd like, by simply declaring it’s in the national interest. There are also no spending offsets to the bill, so it is expensive. There is no expansion of E-Verify systems that are paired with increasing legal work visas. It does not do nearly enough to open up temporary legal pathways for migrants to come here and work, which is the primary reason most arrive on our southern border. It leaves DACA recipients out in the cold, again, meaning they'll continue to be second-class citizens and will remain a bargaining chip for future negotiations.

But guess what? It is still better than what we have now. By a long shot.

Again: I'm surprised Republicans are the ones so outspokenly opposed to the bill. And I feel bad for Sen. James Lankford. We're talking about a piece of legislation that just got endorsed by the Border Patrol union. That's what he won in negotiations, and now right-wing media and his conservative colleagues are raking him over the coals like he’s some kind of traitor.

If Biden were to actually sign something like this into law, I imagine he'd get eviscerated by progressives who focus on immigration work because this bill really does prioritize Republican ideas. That Trump called it "mass amnesty" and other Republicans have suggested it'd somehow "codify" illegal immigration is pure politicking. Quite literally, it includes no amnesty. In almost every way this bill is a restrictionist piece of legislation, and one that has just enough provisions to tighten amnesty, rein in parole, and expand resources on the border to actually be effective.

Of course, Republicans will insist this is Biden realizing he is losing on immigration, that passing it will help him electorally, and criticize him for not shepherding a bill like this into law three years ago if he had really wanted these policies. And those are all fair points. But leaders responding to the popular will is part of how a democracy is supposed to work. That popular will is on the side of a part of the Republican agenda, and the bill addressing it is here now. The politics of this moment are on Republicans' side. The border is in crisis. And there is an opportunity to improve the situation, even partially — or to play election-year politics. Congress should choose improvement.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping the reader question today to give our main story some extra space. Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

A full year after the East Palestine, Ohio, train crash that led to a massive environmental cleanup, the crash site is still under active construction. Norfolk Southern, the freight company involved in the crash, says the costs associated with its cleanup have topped $800 million. But the accident, which many thought would usher in new safety rules and serve as a wake-up call around rail safety, has not led to any reforms. Congress hasn't passed a rail safety bill, and derailments on the biggest railroads actually went up 13% in the first 10 months of 2023. Morning Brew has the story.


  • $7.6 billion. The amount of funding allocated to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the new immigration bill, nearly double its current annual budget.
  • $313 million. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s current annual budget for asylum processing.
  • $4 billion. The additional funding for asylum processing allocated to The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service by the immigration bill. 
  • 4,300. The approximate number of new asylum officers and support staff funded by the bill. 
  • 100. The number of judicial immigration teams funded by the bill. 
  • 250,000. The number of new family and work visas  over the next five years approved by the bill. 
  • +35%. Donald Trump’s advantage over President Biden in voters’ assessment of who would do a better job securing the border and controlling immigration, according to a recent NBC News poll. 

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the Chinese spy balloon.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday’s newsletter was the ad in the free version for AquaVault, the credit-card sized phone charger.
  • Strike back: 857 readers responded to our survey assigning responsibility to different parties for mental health issues associated with minors’ social media usage from 1-7, where 1 means most responsible and 7 is least. Readers ranked the families first with a score of 1.7, then societal pressures with 1.8, then social media platforms with 2.2, then digital advertisers with 3.1, then other minors online with 3.1, then the minors themselves with 3.9, then the government with 5.0. 
  • Nothing to do with politics: Ever overpay for a lemon? What about an actual 285-year-old lemon, which was sold at auction for $1,780.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of the combination foreign aid funding and border security reform bill? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Pittsburgh-native Suzanne Volpe first heard about "scarf bombing" back in 2014 from a Facebook post. The practice is a kind of guerilla kindness campaign, where a charitable gang of knitters crafts warm clothing to donate to needy people when the weather starts to turn cold. Volpe, who has been crocheting for about fifty years, said she was so inspired by the idea that she started doing it herself. “I enjoy crocheting. I enjoy getting together with people to make things, and I love, love, love putting them out, especially when you see the reaction of some people. They're so appreciative," Volpe said. Good Morning America has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.