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As Trump Vies to Blows Up Border Deal, Migrant Crisis Could Get Worse

In an aerial view, immigrants wade across the Rio Grande while crossing from Mexico into the United States on January 07, 2024 in Eagle Pass, Texas. Credit - John Moore–Getty Images

Donald Trump is not in office, but he’s using his hold on the Republican Party to hold up border funding negotiations in Congress, kneecapping the federal government's ability to better address a situation widely viewed as a logistical nightmare and humanitarian crisis.

A bipartisan group of Senators were rushing on Friday to hammer out a legislative package that would put billions of dollars in new resources toward the southern border, where federal officials have been overwhelmed by a surge in migrant crossings. In October, President Joe Biden sent an emergency funding request to Congress asking for more agents, officers and deportation flights.

Late Friday, Biden made clear he is ready to take harsh actions on the border, saying in a statement that the border security package negotiated in the Senate would give him authority to "shut down the border when it becomes overwhelmed," and, he wrote, "I would use it the day I sign the bill into law."

Getting any border package through both chambers of Congress was always going to be a challenge, but Trump’s urging of Republicans to refuse to help the Biden administration address the situation is prompting predictions that the issue may be dead until after the November election.

Such an outcome could exacerbate an already dangerous dynamic on the border, say immigration experts and lawmakers.

“It continues to hamstring the administration in establishing effective border control,” says Doris Meisner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. “To not provide additional funding means it will continue to be extremely difficult to process people at the border, to place people that don’t have valid asylum claims into removal proceedings, to have funding to do return and deportation flights.”

In his original request to Congress, Biden asked for funding to hire 1,300 border patrol agents, 1,600 asylum officers, and 1,000 customs officers and drug investigators as well as new border security technology that can detect fentanyl at ports of entry. Biden also requested funds to hold more people in immigration detention and conduct more flights to remove people from the country who don’t have a legal pathway to stay.

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In a move that was widely viewed as showing how serious he was about getting a deal, Biden signaled a willingness to change asylum rules, something sought after by Republicans, but that some Democrats had long opposed. Such a change could enable border officials to send some migrants back home more quickly and deter others from coming. "I believe we need significant policy changes at the border, including changes in our asylum system to ensure that we have authorities we need to control the border," Biden said on Jan. 19. “I’m ready to act,” he continued. “Now the question's for the Speaker and House Republicans: Are they ready to act as well? They have to choose whether they want to solve a problem or keep weaponizing an issue to score political points against the president.”

The push for increased border funding comes as illegal crossings have reached a record high, with more than 2.4 million apprehensions in the 2023 fiscal year, according to government data. Border patrol agents reported encountering 10,000 migrants per day for multiple days in December, stretching already overwhelmed resources.

Senate leaders have been pushing for a bipartisan agreement that links border security funding with money for Ukraine, but that is likely a nonstarter in the Republican-led House. Still, some lawmakers had expressed hope in recent weeks that a stand-alone border package was still viable.

“We don’t need to continue to perpetuate the crisis at the border,” Republican Sen. Tom Tillis of North Carolina said on Thursday. “It’s all about politics and not having the courage to respectfully disagree with President Trump… I didn't come here to have a president as a boss or a candidate as a boss."

Asked by TIME if the situation at the southern border could get worse if that money is not approved, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated the Administration’s hope to get a bipartisan border deal signed into law. “We're having a very important conversation with the Senate, Senate Republicans and Democrats,” she said on Friday. “We think Congress must act; they need to act. And that's how we're going to deal with this issue.”

The Biden Administration is working with Mexican authorities to try to disrupt criminal human smuggling gangs bringing people from all over the world through Mexico to the U.S. border. It is also working to open offices in central American countries to process refugee claims before people make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border.

But those efforts aren’t expected to meaningfully address the current crisis. Experts say what the administration needs most pressingly is more personnel and other resources at the border. If the current influx continues unabated, it will only encourage more people to try to cross over, says Meisner. She explained that the lengthy backlogs in processing forces border officials to allow many migrants to enter the U.S.—often for months or even years—as they wait for asylum hearings to determine their status.

A speedier system that more quickly identified those without legitimate asylum claims and returned them to their home countries would discourage more people from coming to the U.S., she says.

“People complain ‘fix the border,’ says Meisner. “It’s not possible to fix the border just in the executive branch. To fix the border requires actions by Congress.”

Congress “is the part of our government that is missing in action at this point,” she adds.

Trump’s meddling in the negotiations came to light on Wednesday in a closed-door meeting with Republicans that was first reported by Punchbowl News. In the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged that Trump wants to make the situation at the southern border one of the key issues of his campaign and has urged Republicans to oppose the deal so that immigration remains a political vulnerability for Biden.

“A Border Deal now would be another Gift to the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump said on social media on Friday. “They need it politically, but don't care about our Border. What is currently being worked on in the Senate will be meaningless in terms of Border Security and Closure.” The former President added that the “ONLY HOPE” for a secure border was voting for him.

House Speaker Mike Johnson delivered his own warning shot to Senate negotiators on Friday, writing in a new letter that the emerging border deal—if reached—would be “dead on arrival” in his chamber, and reiterated his call for the Senate to pass the House’s more stringent immigration bill that aims to restrict migrants’ asylum eligibility and reinstate family detention.

Although he did not mention Trump by name in the letter, Johnson previously said that he “frequently” talks about congressional border negotiations with the former President, who urged him to oppose compromising. “Many of our constituents have asked an important question: ‘What is the point of negotiating new laws with an administration that will not enforce the laws already on the books?’” Johnson wrote.

But some Senate Republicans are concerned that by giving up on a border security bill in hopes of helping Trump, it allows President Biden and Democrats to claim that the GOP would rather have more chaos at the border than solve the actual problem.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah called Trump’s directive to oppose the border deal to help his presidential campaign “appalling.”

“I think the border is a very important issue for Donald Trump. And the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and congresspeople that he doesn’t want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it is really appalling,” Romney told reporters on Thursday.

Other Republicans, however, disagree that Trump is the reason for the dwindling support of the border deal. “No one has seen the border deal, and even its advocates admit it will do little to secure the border immediately,” Republican Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio posted on social media on Friday. “Blaming Donald Trump or any Republican for killing this deal is political malpractice.”

Trump further meddled in the Biden administration’s dealings on the border this week when he urged states to send their National Guards to the border to support Texas, after the US Supreme Court backed the Biden administration’s plan to remove razor wire installed at the border at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s direction. Abbott has vowed to block the federal government from removing the razor wire.

Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com.