Military aid, delivered as part of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, is unloaded from a plane at the Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv Feb. 13, 2022. OSV News photo/Serhiy Takhmazov, Reuters

Senate Republicans block Ukraine-Israel emergency aid over border, raising Catholic concerns

By  Kate Scanlon, OSV News
  • December 8, 2023

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans Dec. 6 blocked an emergency spending bill to provide billions of dollars in wartime aid to Ukraine and Israel while calling for strict new policies at the U.S.-Mexico border opposed by some Catholic immigration advocates.

The move increases pressure on Congress and the White House to make a deal before the end of the year when aid to Ukraine is expected to run out. Russia's forces have intensified attacks to seize more of eastern Ukraine, and Russian occupation authorities are reported to have banned the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Catholic ministries, such as the Knights of Columbus, in Ukraine's southern Zaporizhzhia region.

A vote to advance the package failed 49-51, short of the 60-vote threshold it would need to proceed to a floor vote. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., bucked his fellow Democrats to vote against allowing the package to advance, arguing in a statement the funds for Israel had "no strings attached" for "the right-wing extremist Netanyahu government."

In remarks opposing the measure on the Senate floor Dec. 6., Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., one of the Republicans seeking to change border policy in the measure, said, "President Biden asked for a national security supplemental and included into that border funding and then a request for policy changes."

"It is time to be able to address this issue," Lankford said, adding, "Republicans are going to speak clearly to say, 'We will not move to a national security bill that does security for other nations and ignores our own. We will not do it.'"

In October, President Joe Biden requested more than $105 billion in aid for both conflicts, and other "Critical National Security Priorities," including efforts to bolster U.S. military resources and additional funding for security efforts at the U.S.-Mexico border, as Ukraine continues to fend off Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion and Israel responds to an attack by Hamas, a group recognized by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a Dec. 7 press briefing that "it's stunning that we've gotten to this point."
"They're playing chicken with our national security," she said. "That's what we're seeing here. And history will remember them harshly."

While negotiations are ongoing, Republicans have indicated they will seek measures increasing asylum standards, among other measures they say will reduce illegal border crossings.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at the same briefing that "we're willing to negotiate in good faith."

"He does believe that there should be immigration policy changes, as well as resource changes, and he's willing to have that conversation," Kirby said of Biden.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters at a Dec. 5 press conference that "we insist on meaningful changes to the border."

McConnell also has argued that it is in the interest of U.S. national security to help Ukraine fend off Russia's invasion.

But Catholic immigration advocates expressed concern about potential changes for asylum-seekers and argued the proposed aid package shouldn't be the vehicle for them.

J. Kevin Appleby, senior fellow for policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York and the former director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV News that "there is a lot at stake here and more than meets the eye."

"Asylum law could be forever changed for the worse, effectively placing large numbers of bona fide refugees at risk of harm or death when they are returned to their persecutors," he said.

The proposed changes, he said, "would violate human rights standards, betray our values as a nation and certainly go against Catholic teaching."

"Catholics should contact their elected officials and ask them to oppose these proposals and, instead, encourage them to enact comprehensive reform of the immigration system," Appleby said. "This is not the way to reform immigration, with one side holding the world hostage in order to push through a one-way compromise. If the administration agrees to this, it will only encourage immigration opponents to try it again on the next spending bill."

In a statement issued earlier in December, the Franciscan Action Network said it urged Congress "not to trade asylum protection for foreign aid funding," and argued "the U.S. asylum process needs to be strengthened, not dismantled."

"Our Christian faith, Catholic Social Teaching, and Franciscan values compel us to speak in defense of asylum-seekers and oppose the draconian anti-immigrant proposal," the statement said. "The God-given dignity and rights of immigrants must be honored. We join other faith groups and immigration justice organizations in urging members of Congress not to approve this considered trade-off and instead, work to protect and strengthen the asylum process."

A spokesperson for the USCCB did not immediately respond to a request from OSV News for comment on the U.S. bishops' views on the proposed changes.

The Senate is expected to continue its negotiations on the bill.

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