Lindsey Graham asylum

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham unveiled new legislation Wednesday hoping to stem the flow of refugee asylum claims at the country's southern border. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

WASHINGTON — After years of frustration trying to orchestrate sweeping changes to the country's immigration laws, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is narrowing his focus to finally get a bill through Congress that addresses what he views as the most urgent crisis: the asylum process.

The change in tactics for Graham, who has pushed for comprehensive immigration reform for years, reflects an acknowledgement of the political realities in a divided Congress, where anything more than narrowly tailored bills have struggled to advance.

The South Carolina Republican unveiled new legislation Wednesday designed specifically to change how asylum claims are handled, in hope of mitigating an overwhelming flow of refugees from what are known as the Northern Triangle countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

"No matter what you do with comprehensive immigration reform, if you don't change these laws, the Central American problem continues," Graham said. "What I'm saying is, this problem has to be fixed now. We don't have time to do a comprehensive immigration bill. We should put together some reasonable package to solve this problem."

Graham's bill comes a day after President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, briefed Senate Republicans on plans the White House is formulating for a fresh attempt at a comprehensive immigration overhaul. 

But Kushner drew a skeptical audience from members of Trump's own party, and Democrats generally view the White House's ideas as non-starters.

“Everything Trump has done on immigration is designed to make a deal as hard as possible," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

To avoid the political pitfalls of a broader bill that lawmakers can find myriad reasons to oppose, Graham said his goal was to extract the part of Trump's plan that is focused on "the acute problem" of asylum. 

“The White House’s plan is not designed to become law. This is designed to become law," Graham said. "The White House plan is trying to unite the Republican Party around border security and merit-based immigration. I’m trying to get some relief to our border patrol agents."

The bill would require asylum applications to be filed at refugee processing centers in the Northern Triangle countries or Mexico, rather than at the U.S. border; add 500 more immigration judges to handle the backlog of cases; allow families to be held for up to 100 days rather than 20 while their asylum claims are processed; and allow the U.S. to return unaccompanied minors from Central America to their countries of origin.

More than 520,000 people have been apprehended on the southern border so far this fiscal year, according to acting Customs and Border Protection director John Sanders, averaging over 4,500 arrests per day over the past week.

As Democrats have looked to offer their own solutions to the asylum crisis, they have focused more on increasing U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle countries in hopes that an improved situation on the ground there would reduce the incentives for refugees to come to America.

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Though Graham said he's had early discussions about the idea with some Democrats, particularly Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who he's worked closely with on immigration issues before, he said he does not know how well his proposal will be received across the aisle.

He stressed he's open to adding elements to his bill through negotiations, including aid to Northern Triangle countries or addressing the young undocumented immigrants who were brought into the U.S. as children and have been protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

“I’m willing to sit down with Democrats to find a way to address the underlying problem in Central America," Graham said. "I’m willing to put other immigration ideas on the table to marry up with this. But what I’m not willing to do is to ignore this problem any longer.”

Though Graham said he wants his bill to go through the regular order process in the Senate with a committee hearing, he and Sanders stressed that the situation on the border is untenable and needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

"Yesterday would have been a good time, but I'm realistic that I'm not going to be able to change the work period," Graham said. "So I'm just going to make it a top priority for the committee."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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