Senate faces showdown over immigration and ‘Dreamers’

Demonstrators calling for new protections for so-called "Dreamers," undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their immigrant parents, walk through a senate office building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Susan Heavey and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration remained insistent on hardline immigration measures on Thursday as the U.S. Senate prepared to vote on various legislative proposals to protect young “Dreamer” immigrants and to tighten border security.

In a statement overnight, the Department of Homeland Security dismissed what some thought was the bill most likely to win enough bipartisan support to pass the chamber, saying it failed to meet minimum criteria set out by President Donald Trump.

The plan, crafted by a bipartisan group of senators led by moderate Republican Susan Collins, would protect from deportation 1.8 million young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children and who are known as Dreamers.

It also includes a $25 billion fund to strengthen border security and possibly even construct segments of Trump’s long-promised border wall with Mexico.

The immigration issue has become a matter of urgency for lawmakers after Trump in September ordered an Obama-era program that protected Dreamers to end by March 5, telling Congress it should come up with a solution by then.

The Department of Homeland Security blasted the Collins-led plan, saying it destroyed the ability of DHS officers to remove millions of undocumented immigrants from the country, and “is an egregious violation of the four compromise pillars laid out by the President’s immigration reform framework.”

Trump’s four provisions are for any bill to include funds to build the border wall, to end the visa lottery program, to impose curbs on visas for the families of legal immigrants, and to protect Dreamers.

The Republican president has backed a bill by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley that embraces Trump’s wish list but is unlikely to win support from enough Democrats in the closely-divided chamber.

A narrower third bill, by Republican John McCain and Democrat Chris Coons, has been dismissed by Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was expected to bring forward all three measures on Thursday to gauge which has enough support to move toward a vote in the Senate ahead of a Friday deadline he has imposed for the legislation.

Despite backing from several Republicans for the Collins-led plan, it was unclear if enough Democrats would get behind it to muster the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate that Republicans control 51-49.

Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine told MSNBC on Thursday he thought lawmakers were “very close” to the 60 votes needed on the Collins-led measure. Republican Senator Marco Rubio told Fox News he was unsure whether any Senate plan would move forward.

Even if one of three bills passes, it must still win over the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a larger majority and are pushing a more conservative proposal that is closer in line with Trump’s framework.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will support only legislation backed by Trump, who has carried his tough law-and-order stance toward immigrants from his 2016 campaign into his administration.

(Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Senate Republican leader embraces Trump immigration plan

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republicans on Tuesday turned up the heat on Democrats seeking protections for young “Dreamer” immigrants as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell embraced President Donald Trump’s demands for broad changes to the country’s immigration policies.

In announcing his support for legislation that would help immigrants who were brought illegally to the United States as children, McConnell also threw his weight behind building a U.S.-Mexico border wall and sharply curtailing visas for the parents and siblings of immigrants living in the United States legally.

“This proposal has my support and during this week of fair debate I believe it deserves support of every senator who’s ready to move beyond making points and actually making a law,” McConnell, a Republican, said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Even some Republicans, however, have expressed skepticism that such broad, fundamental changes in U.S. immigration law can pass the Senate by the Thursday deadline that No. 2 Republican Senator John Cornyn urged late on Monday.

Also on Monday, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who is leading the charge for Dreamers, told reporters that he thought early Senate votes on immigration legislation would begin with “expansive” measures that will fail to win the 60 votes needed to clear procedural hurdles.

Then, Durbin said, senators will be forced to move “toward the center with a moderate approach.”

But at least for now, Republicans were holding a tough line. Republican Senator Tom Cotton, interviewed on Fox News, said Trump’s immigration plan “is not an opening bid for negotiations. It’s a best and final offer.”

That ran counter to statements Trump has made in recent days, including early on Tuesday in which he said in a tweet that “Negotiations on DACA have begun.”

DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Democratic former President Barack Obama initiated in 2012 and which has allowed around 700,000 Dreamers to legally study and work in the United States temporarily. Last September, Trump announced he would terminate the program on March 5.

During testimony before the Senate Budget Committee on Monday, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said he thought that a deal on immigration legislation will be reached “and that we have full funding on the (border) wall” of $18 billion over two years.

Durbin and other Democrats have talked of the possibility of a bill that provides for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and additional border security, which could include the construction of more border fencing and other high-tech tools to deter illegal immigrants.

(Reporting By Richard Cowan, additional reporting by Katanga Johnson; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

Lebanon vows to block border wall, Israel eyes diplomacy on gas field

Lebanese President Michel Aoun meets with Lebanon's Higher Defence Council at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon February 7, 2018

By Ellen Francis and Dan Williams

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Lebanon vowed on Wednesday to prevent any territorial intrusion by a border wall which Israel is building, and Israel said it wanted foreign mediation to resolve a maritime energy dispute with its northern neighbor.

Lebanese leaders have accused Israel of threatening the stability of the border region. Arguments over the wall and Lebanon’s plans to explore for oil and gas in disputed Mediterranean waters have increased friction between the two enemy states.

“This wall, if it is built, will be considered an assault on Lebanese land,” the secretary-general of Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council said in a statement after a meeting of senior government and military officials.

The council “has given its instructions to confront this aggression to prevent Israel from building (the wall) on Lebanese territory,” it said, without elaborating.

The council includes Lebanon’s president, prime minister, other cabinet ministers and the army commander.

Israel has said the wall is entirely within its territory.

One Israeli official told Reuters that parts of the wall were being erected closer to the border than a current frontier fence, which in places runs well to the south due to topography.

The Lebanese government says the wall would pass through land that belongs to Lebanon but lies on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, where the United Nations demarcated Israel’s military withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Calm has largely prevailed along the frontier since 2006, when Israel fought a war with Lebanon’s heavily-armed Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah movement. The month-long conflict killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

In a televised address last month, Hezbollah’s leader cautioned Israel to take the Lebanese government’s warnings over the wall “with utmost seriousness”.

“Lebanon will be united behind the state and the army to prevent the Israeli enemy (violating Lebanese territory),” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said. Hezbollah will “fully handle its responsibility in this regard,” he added.

OFFSHORE ENERGY

Lebanon’s first offshore oil and gas exploration tender drew condemnation last week from Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He called it a “very provocative” move and urged international firms not to participate.

The two countries have an unresolved maritime border dispute over a triangular area of sea of around 860 sq km (330 square miles). The zone extends along the edge of three out of five energy blocks that Lebanon put to tender early last year.

In December, Lebanon approved a bid by a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek for two blocks.

One of these, Block 9, juts partly into waters claimed by Israel. In a conciliatory tack from Lieberman’s remarks, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Wednesday mooted negotiations.

“There is a dispute, which is no secret – it’s been going on for years – over the border demarcation between our economic waters and Lebanon’s,” he told the Israeli news site Ynet.

“We hope for, and are prepared to move forward on, a diplomatic resolution to this matter.”

Steinitz said that, in 2013, U.S. intermediaries had come close to clinching a deal involving “a kind of compromise”.

“The Lebanese too have their own economic waters in which they want to search for gas and oil,” he added. “And they have such a right – so long as they do not threaten and certainly not penetrate our demarcated waters”.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and; Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Trump administration approves tougher visa vetting, including social media checks

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection arm patch and badge

By Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration has rolled out a new questionnaire for U.S. visa applicants worldwide that asks for social media handles for the last five years and biographical information going back 15 years.

The new questions, part of an effort to tighten vetting of would-be visitors to the United States, was approved on May 23 by the Office of Management and Budget despite criticism from a range of education officials and academic groups during a public comment period.

Critics argued that the new questions would be overly burdensome, lead to long delays in processing and discourage international students and scientists from coming to the United States.

Under the new procedures, consular officials can request all prior passport numbers, five years’ worth of social media handles, email addresses and phone numbers and 15 years of biographical information including addresses, employment and travel history.

Officials will request the additional information when they determine “that such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous national security vetting,” a State Department official said on Wednesday.

The State Department said earlier the tighter vetting would apply to visa applicants “who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities.”

President Donald Trump has vowed to increase national security and border protections, proposing to give more money to the military and make Mexico pay to build a wall along the southern U.S. border.

He has tried to implement a temporary travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority nations that a U.S. appeals court refused to reinstate, calling it discriminatory and setting the stage for a showdown in the Supreme Court.

The Office of Management and Budget granted emergency approval for the new questions for six months, rather than the usual three years.

While the new questions are voluntary, the form says failure to provide the information may delay or prevent the processing of an individual visa application.

Immigration lawyers and advocates say the request for 15 years of detailed biographical information, as well as the expectation that applicants remember all their social media handles, is likely to catch applicants who make innocent mistakes or do not remember all the information requested.

The new questions grant “arbitrary power” to consular officials to determine who gets a visa with no effective check on their decisions, said Babak Yousefzadeh, a San Francisco-based attorney and president of the Iranian American Bar Association.

“The United States has one of the most stringent visa application processes in the world,” Yousefzadeh said. “The need for tightening the application process further is really unknown and unclear.”

(Editing by Sue Horton and Lisa Shumaker)

Trump administration has found only $20 million in existing funds for wall

A general view shows a newly built section of the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Sunland Park, U.S. opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Edwards Ainsley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s promise to use existing funds to begin immediate construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border has hit a financial roadblock, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The rapid start of construction, promised throughout Trump’s campaign and in an executive order issued in January on border security, was to be financed, according to the White House, with “existing funds and resources” of the Department of Homeland Security.

But so far, the DHS has identified only $20 million that can be re-directed to the multi-billion-dollar project, according to a document prepared by the agency and distributed to congressional budget staff last week.

The document said the funds would be enough to cover a handful of contracts for wall prototypes, but not enough to begin construction of an actual barrier. This means that for the wall to move forward, the White House will need to convince Congress to appropriate funds.

An internal report, previously reported by Reuters, estimated that fully walling off or fencing the entire southern border would cost $21.6 billion – $9.3 million per mile of fence and $17.8 million per mile of wall.

DHS officials did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Trump has said he will ask Congress to pay for what existing funds cannot cover and that Mexico will be pressured to pay back U.S. taxpayers at a later date.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will include funding for a border wall in the budget for next fiscal year. He has estimated the cost to be between $12 billion and $15 billion.

Many Republican lawmakers have said they would vote against a plan that does not offset the cost of the wall with spending cuts.

In the document it submitted to Congress, the DHS said it would reallocate $5 million from a fence project in Naco, Arizona, that came in under budget and $15 million from a project to install cameras on top of trucks at the border.

The surveillance project was awarded to Virginia-based Tactical Micro, but was held up due to protests from other contractors, according to the DHS document. Tactical Micro could not be reached for comment.

The DHS only searched for extra funds within its $376 million budget for border security fencing, infrastructure and technology, so it would not have to ask for congressional approval to repurpose funding, according to the document.

Contractors cannot begin bidding to develop prototypes until March 6 but more than 265 businesses already have listed themselves as “interested parties” on a government web site.

Those interested range from small businesses to large government contractors such as Raytheon <RTN.N>.

(Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Sue Horton and Bill Trott)

U.S. hopes to have border wall finished within two years: official

DAY 6 / JANUARY 25: President Trump signed directives to build a wall along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border and strip federal funding from "sanctuary" cities that shield illegal immigrants, as he charged ahead with sweeping and divisive plans to transform how the United States deals with immigration and national security. "We are in the middle of

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said on Thursday he hoped to have a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico finished within two years, according to an interview with Fox News.

“The wall will be built where it’s needed first, and then it will be filled in. That’s the way I look at it,” Kelly said in the interview. “I really hope to have it done within the next two years.” He added he thought funding from Congress for the massive project would come “relatively quickly.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu)

France confirms Calais migrant camp shutdown

Migrants pass by a road sign as they leave the northern area of the camp called the "Jungle" in Calais, France,

By Elizabeth Pineau

CALAIS, France (Reuters) – President Francois Hollande said on Monday that France will completely shut down “the Jungle” migrant camp in Calais by year-end and called on London to help deal with the plight of thousands of people whose dream is ultimately to get to Britain.

“The situation is unacceptable and everyone here knows it,” Hollande said on a visit to the northern port city where as many as 10,000 migrants from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan live in squalor.

“We must dismantle the camp completely and definitively,” he said.

France plans to relocate the migrants in small groups around the country but right-wing opponents of the Socialist leader are raising the heat ahead of the election in April, accusing him of mismanaging a problem that is ultimately a British one.

The migrants want to enter Britain, but the government in London argues that migrants seeking asylum need to do so under European Union law in the country where they enter.

Immigration was one of the main drivers of Britain’s vote this year to leave the EU. It is also likely to be major factor in France’s presidential election.

If France stopped trying to prevent migrants from entering Britain, Britain would ultimately find itself obliged to deal with the matter when asylum-seekers land on its shores a short distance by ferry or subsea train from France’s Calais coast.

Hollande bluntly reminded Britain of that, saying that he expected London to fully honor agreements on managing a flow of migrants.

“I also want to restate my determination that the British authorities play their part in the humanitarian effort that France is undertaking and that they continue to do that in the future,” Hollande said.

London and Paris have struck agreements on issues such as the recently begun construction of a giant wall on the approach road to Calais port in an attempt to try to stop migrants who attempt daily to board cargo trucks bound for Britain.

“What happens in the Jungle is ultimately a matter for the French authorities, what they choose to do with it,” a British government spokesman said.

“Our position is very clear: we remain committed to protecting the shared border that we have in Calais,” the spokesman said. He added: “The work that we do with France to maintain the security of that border goes on and will go on, irrespective of what happens to the Jungle camp.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Sandle; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

How Europe Built A Fence

File photo of a migrant who is waiting to cross the Greek-Macedonian sitting in his tent by the border fence at a makeshift camp, near the village of Idomeni

By Gabriela Baczynska and Sara Ledwith

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – In early March, Europe’s migration chief Dimitris Avramopoulos squelched through a muddy refugee camp on Greece’s border with Macedonia and peered through the barbed-wire topped fence that stands between tens of thousands of migrants in Greece and richer countries that lie to the north.

“By building fences, by deploying barbed wire,” he said, “it is not a solution.”

But Avramopoulos has not always preached that message – and his changing views capture the tangle Europe has got itself into as more than a million migrants and refugees have floated in on Greek waters since the start of 2015.

In 2012, when he was Greek minister of defense, Greece built a fence and electronic surveillance system along its border with Turkey. The cement and barbed-wire barrier and nearly 2,000 extra guards were designed to stop a sharp rise in illegal immigrants.

The 62-year-old former diplomat was not directly involved in the project. But in 2013 he defended it, telling a news conference the wall had borne fruit. “The entry of illegal immigrants in Greece by this side has almost been eliminated,” he said.

The official European response to Europe’s migrant crisis – championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel last August – is for member states to pull together and provide shelter for people, especially Syrians, fleeing war or persecution. But in reality, most members have failed to take their quotas of refugees and nearly a dozen have built barricades to try to keep both migrants and refugees out. The bloc is now trying to implement a deal which would see Turkey take back new arrivals.

The European Union was founded in the ashes of World War Two, in part on a principle of freedom of movement among member states. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, European countries have built or started 1,200 km (750 miles) of anti-immigrant fencing at a cost of at least 500 million euros ($570 million), a Reuters analysis of public data shows. That distance is almost 40 percent of the length of America’s border with Mexico.

Many of these walls separate EU nations from states outside the bloc, but some are between EU states, including members of Europe’s passport-free zone. Most of the building was started in 2015.

“Wherever there have been large numbers of migrants or refugees trying to enter the EU, this trend has been followed up by a fence,” said Irem Arf, a researcher on European Migration at rights group Amnesty International.

For governments, fences seem like a simple solution. Building them is perfectly legal and countries have the right to control who enters their territory. Each new fence in Europe has sharply curbed the numbers of irregular immigrants on the route they blocked.

For at least one company, fences work. The firm which operates a tunnel between France and Britain says that since a major security upgrade around its French terminal last October, migrants have ceased to cause trouble.

“There have been no disruptions to services since mid October 2015, so we can say that the combination of the fence and the additional police presence has been highly effective,” Eurotunnel spokesman John Keefe said.

But in the short term at least, they have not stopped people trying to come. Instead, they have diverted them, often to longer, more dangerous routes. And rights groups say some fences deny asylum-seekers the chance to seek shelter, even though European law states that everyone has the right to a fair and efficient asylum procedure.

Forced to find another way, migrants and refugees often turn to people-smugglers.

CROWD CONTROL

Greece’s border fence was one of the first, and Avramopoulos still defends it. He says Greece built it to divert people towards official crossings where they could apply for asylum.

Much of Greece’s frontier with Turkey is delineated by a fast-flowing river, the Evros. But there is a 12 km stretch where people used to sneak through on land after making the river crossing in Turkey.

“The Evros river is a very dangerous river,” Avramopoulos told Reuters in his upper floor office suite in February. “Hundreds of people had lost their lives there.”

At least 19 people drowned in the Evros in 2010, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Neither the Greek authorities nor Europe’s border agency Frontex could provide more data.

In practice, rights groups say Greece’s barrier – and others including one built by Spain in Morocco – effectively turn everyone away, denying vulnerable people a chance to make their case for protection.

This is partly because some new barriers have passport controls like those at an airport. People need travel documents to exit one country and reach the checkpoint of the EU country where they want to seek asylum. Many refugees don’t have any papers, so they are automatically blocked.

With barriers come security guards, cameras and surveillance equipment, which all make it harder for people to make their asylum cases. Rights groups have documented many reports of border officials beating, abusing, or robbing migrants and refugees before dumping them back where they came from. This approach, known as push-back, has become an intrinsic feature of Europe’s external borders, according to Amnesty International.

As a solution, some migrants and refugees buy fake papers. Others stow away in vehicles. Or they turn to people-smugglers.

Greece’s fence had a knock-on effect that continues to ripple through Europe as more countries wall themselves off. More migrants moving through Turkey began to enter Europe across the Bulgarian border, or by sailing to Greece in inflatable dinghies. In the eastern Mediterranean, the International Organization for Migration has recorded more than 1,100 migrant deaths since the start of last year.

CULTURAL PURITY

The EU refuses to fund fences, saying they don’t work. As European Commissioner, Avramopoulos has tried instead to persuade fellow member states to show solidarity by offering homes to 160,000 refugees and migrants, mainly from Greece and Italy. As of March 15, just 937 asylum applicants had been relocated.

For Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the idea of quotas is “bordering on insanity.” Orban opposes a dilution of Europe’s “Christian values” by multicultural immigrants and started building fences along Hungary’s borders with Croatia and Serbia in late 2015.

Since the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, Balkan states have been particularly sensitive to the risks of ethnic and religious conflict. Other countries followed Hungary with fences – even if most said they installed them to control the flow of people, rather than to preserve cultural purity.

When Austria started a barrier on its border with Slovenia in November 2015, it said it was necessary for crowd management. Then Austria capped the numbers of people it would admit, and how many it would allow through to Germany. By March, all these measures seemed to be having the desired effect: The number of migrants entering Germany from Austria had fallen more than sevenfold.

Even so, there were new signs the fences were simply reshaping, rather than closing, the migration routes. The numbers making the perilous crossing from Africa to Italy had increased. Austria said it would add soldiers to defend its border with Italy.

The fence Avramopoulos visited last month underlines the risks of such barriers. Built by Macedonia as part of a pact with states further north, it has sealed around 50,000 people into Greece.

More than 10,000 – a third of them children – are camped in flimsy tents near the fence. Many families have refused to leave the border, waiting instead for it to open, as respiratory infections spread and frustration mounts.

“All our values are in danger today,” Avramopoulos said. “You can see it here.”

(Ledwith reported from London; Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Renee Maltezou in Athens, Tom Miles in Geneva and Himanshu Ojha in London; Edited by Janet Roberts and Simon Robinson)