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Lead border negotiator says no immigration deal this week as key sticking points remain

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WASHINGTON — Senate and White House negotiators are nearing an agreement on new immigration policies that would unlock aid for foreign allies but significant gaps remain.

Limits on the Biden administration’s use of humanitarian parole to authorize certain migrants who apply in advance to temporarily live and work legally in the U.S. is a top sticking point, according to three people involved in discussions as well as Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who was briefed on talks.

Republicans want to restrict President Joe Biden’s use of that parole authority, arguing the administration has abused a tool designed for humanitarian relief. Agreeing to new limits would mark a significant concession for Democrats.

The Biden administration has used humanitarian parole to grant fast legal authorization for Afghans fleeing the Taliban and Ukrainians fleeing Russian occupation to come into the United States. Most recently, they began granting humanitarian parole to 30,000 migrants each month from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua as a legal pathway available for migrants from those countries who have a U.S.-based sponsor.

Humanitarian parole has been a key part of the Biden administration’s “carrot and stick” approach to migration, which seeks to make it harder for migrants to seek asylum at the border and easier for them to apply for entry from their home countries. But Republicans have blamed the policy for sending mixed messages.

The talks are key to getting new foreign aid through Congress. House Republicans have demanded new restrictions on immigration before they will agree to back new aid for Ukraine in its war against Russia, a top priority for the Biden administration.

Another provision under discussion in the ongoing Senate talks would mandate that migrants be detained pending adjudication of asylum claims, with Democrats pushing back on a GOP proposal that would detain all undocumented immigrants. Without additional resources, Immigration and Customs Enforcement do not have enough space to hold migrants who are not considered a security risk and therefore release most of them into the country.

Some middle ground has been reached on the idea of expanding detention space so the ICE can hold more, though not all migrants, the three sources familiar with the discussion said. Currently, the vast majority of migrants are released into the country to pursue asylum claims after an initial screening by Customs and Border Protection to ensure they do not pose a national security or public safety threat.

After an hour-long meeting on Monday morning, the top three negotiators — Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. — expressed optimism that the scope of issues between the two sides was becoming “narrower” but said there was no deal yet.

The group had hoped to present a framework to lawmakers when they returned to Washington on Tuesday after an extended holiday break, but by Monday evening Lankford told reporters that text of a deal would not be released this week. The lead GOP negotiator has kept individual members on his side of the aisle informed of the progress being made, according to a source with knowledge of those conversations. Lankford met with GOP leadership on Monday and is expected to separately brief House and Senate Republicans on Wednesday.

Senate Republicans will also hold a special conference briefing on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the border crisis more broadly at the request of Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the source said.

After huddling with Lankford on Monday, Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., appeared skeptical that an agreement would be finalized soon.

“There are some of the big issues that are just now finally being broached. And they’re not going to be easy to resolve. I don’t think you can accelerate that. I think it’s got to be done right,” he said.

A GOP push to expand expedited deportation of migrants to include cities beyond the border is no longer on the table after significant pushback from Democrats, two sources told NBC News.

Negotiators have already agreed to several key policy changes that would make it more difficult for migrants to seek asylum at the southern border. And the Biden White House is also taking a larger role than it did at the beginning of negotiations and will likely agree to any agreement reached in the Senate, two additional sources said.

Speaking from the border in Eagle Pass, Texas on Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he has “been privileged” to participate in negotiations between Senate Republicans and Democrats.

If the negotiations can deliver fixes to the immigration system, Mayorkas said, “I am confident that that will have a dramatic impact on the number of encounters we are experiencing at the border.”

The last time Congress agreed to significant immigration reform was in 1986 and has been unsuccessful since, despite numerous bipartisan attempts to enact new policy over the years.

“For those of us that have been engaged on the field, we’re going to take lots of hits and lots of people are going to cheer and boo in the stands,” Lankford told reporters on Monday, referring to the fraught political climate in a competitive election year. “But the task has still got to be done, and the problem has got to be resolved.”

Asked why the issue of parole was so difficult to resolve, Lankford quipped, “I don’t know, ask Chris [Murphy].”

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