Billings Gazette: Tester backs border bill; Daines, Rosendale, Zinke opposed

by Tom Lutey

As Montana’s Republican members of Congress bemoaned a comprehensive U.S. southern border deal, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said he’ll vote for the measure, citing the magnitude of the crisis.

Tester in a press conference Monday said delaying action on the border for at least a year, as the bill’s Republican opponents have suggested, exacerbates the crisis.

“This bipartisan bill would be the most significant action taken by Congress to address our broken immigration system in literally decades,” Tester said. “Yet, there are some politicians in Washington who have decided that they’d rather spread some disinformation about this bill, without even reading it I might add, and declare it dead on arrival.

“The irony is these politicians who are now blindly opposing a bipartisan solution, are the very same ones who have said loudly for years that we need policy changes to secure the border. They are revealing in plain sight that they care more about using the border as a political issue in the upcoming election than actually solving the problem.”

The border security portion of the bill spends $20 billion. The remainder of the $118 billion legislation is directed to wars in Israel, $14 billion, and Ukraine, $60 billion, with another $10 billion for humanitarian aid related to both conflicts. 

Four months in the making, the bill is a collaboration between Oklahoma Senate Republican Jim Lankford, Independent Kyrsten Sinema, and the Biden administration. The bill was on stable ground until Donald Trump signaled a few weeks ago that Republicans should kill the agreement.

Monday Trump turned on Lankford, telling rightwing radio host Dan Bongino that Langford had never received a Trump endorsement, when in truth the former president called Lankford “strong on the border, tough on crime and very smart on the economy” just 16 months ago.

Lankford told the Tulsa World that had the bill been law in the last three months of 2023, more than 800,000 would have been turned away from the United States.

The bill requires that border crossings be cut 75% whenever the number of weekly encounters with immigrants averages 5,000 a day, or if a single day of encounters is 8,500 or more. Mandatory action, described on page 212 of the bill, would put the border crossings in emergency authority for all but four days of the last third of 2023.

In deference to a House Republican bill, HR 2, which the far-right hardliners, including U.S. Rep Matt Rosendale are rallying around, the Senate bill mandates that the only physical barriers built to stop pedestrian migrants be 18 to 30 feet tall, made of steel bollard and feature anti-dig and anti-climb features. The details are outlined on page 77.

The steel wall language is taken directly from the last version of the Trump-era “Border Security Improvement Plan.” The bill gives the Department of Homeland Security secretary 180 days after passage to report to Congress on exactly how many additional miles of border wall are needed and where those miles are needed. Funding for the border wall cannot be used for anything else.

Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell had indicated earlier that Republicans were unlikely to get a better bill passed with a second Trump presidency and control of the House and Senate, in large part because it takes a 60-vote majority to pass legislation in the Senate. Republicans aren’t likely to take a 60-seat majority in the Senate in the coming 2024 election.

The question Lee Montana put to the state’s delegation was whether another year, or more, of record border crossings was tolerable as they waited for a potential second coming of Trump and longshot odds of taking complete control of Congress.

Montana Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines didn’t answer the question or indicate whether he’d take the blame for rejecting the current bill if a better bill never materializes.

Instead, he issued the following statement:

“The bottom line i,s President Biden created this crisis, and he doesn’t need Congress to fix it. He just has to reinstate and enforce the commonsense policies that he overturned,” Daines said, specifically referring to the policy of requiring migrants to “remain in Mexico” for processing.

Remain in Mexico was used by Trump beginning in 2019 and was bolstered by Covid-19 pandemic concerns. Biden repealed the policy in 2021, a move the U.S. Supreme Court concluded the president had a right to do.

However, the $20 billion in border security spending proposed by the current bill is something only Congress can approve. That vote scheduled for later this week includes $7.6 billion for U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement Operations and Support, available through September 2026.

Within the total, is $534 million to hire thousands of new border security agents and other hires. There is $2.5 billion in the bill for “removal flights” and short-term staging facilities to repatriate aliens back to their home countries. And $3.2 billion for increased detention space.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke cautioned that the bill does little for enforcement, focusing instead on immigration, expanding work permits and visas. There is extensive languages concerning special immigrant visas for relatives of people serving the U.S. military, for the surviving family members of Afghans injured or killed while working for the United States, and for children and families with children.

Immigrant advocacy groups panned the bill as inhumane.

“This bill is not worth the incredible price it would exact – more families separated, more children detained, and more people sent back to face persecution, torture, and even death,” said the National Immigration Law Center. “Instead of enacting draconian policies that create more chaos, we urge the White House and Senate Democrats to change course, reject this framework, and recommit to building an orderly, humane, and functioning immigration system.”