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GOP Threatens to Hold COVID Funding Hostage to Preserve Trump Immigration Policy

Republicans are pushing to protect Title 42, a Trump-era migrant expulsion order that rights groups condemn as inhumane.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Joni Ernst arrive at a news conference following the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Building on April 5, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Senate Republicans on Tuesday threatened to tank a new $10 billion coronavirus relief package unless Democrats allow a vote on an amendment to preserve Title 42, a Trump-era border expulsion policy that the Biden administration is moving to end after months of sustained pressure from immigrant rights groups.

Late Tuesday, Republicans in the upper chamber blocked a procedural effort to begin consideration of the bipartisan Covid-19 aid measure, which includes money to help the U.S. purchase coronavirus test kits, therapeutics, and vaccines. Public health advocates have criticized the bill’s exclusion of funds to combat the pandemic globally.

“I think there’ll have to be an amendment on Title 42 in order to move the bill,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters ahead of Tuesday’s procedural vote. “There’s several other amendments that we’re going to want to offer, and so we’ll need to enter into some kind of agreement to process these amendments in order to go forward with the bill.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Republicans of holding coronavirus relief “hostage for an extraneous issue.”

The GOP’s stonewalling comes as the Biden White House is urgently requesting Covid-19 funding to keep critical pandemic response programs alive. The administration has already been forced to wind down a program that covered coronavirus testing and treatment for the uninsured.

One private testing company, Quest Diagnostics, quickly seized the opportunity to announce that patients without Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance coverage will be charged $125 for one of its PCR kits.

Politico reported Tuesday that Republican obstruction over Title 42 “could stall for weeks what Biden called much-needed coronavirus aid, unless senators can reach a deal before they plan to leave on Thursday or Friday.”

“Without a breakthrough, the aid won’t be approved until late April or perhaps May,” the outlet noted.

First issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March 2020 despite internal objections from experts, the Title 42 order allows immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants and asylum seekers at the border, using the coronavirus pandemic as a justification. Such a policy was long advocated by Stephen Miller, former President Donald Trump’s xenophobic immigration adviser.

For months, the Biden administration rebuffed calls from rights groups and legal experts to end Title 42, under which more than a million migrants have been turned away at the southern U.S. border and often sent back into dangerous conditions in their home countries.

Last week, the CDC announced that Title 42 would no longer be in effect as of May 23, outraging anti-immigrant Republicans and drawing objections from some Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).

It’s not clear whether those Democrats would be willing to vote with Republicans to push a Title 42 amendment into the Covid-19 funding bill.

The inclusion of such an amendment would likely endanger the legislation’s prospects in the House. Late Tuesday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) — which has dozens of members in the lower chamber — said it “opposes any amendment to the Covid relief package that would attempt to reinstate the Trump-initiated Title 42.”

“The pandemic was used as an excuse to implement Title 42 and deny asylum-seekers their legal right to due process,” the CHC added. “Title 42 should not be used as border policy. Instead, we must work to address the root causes of migration, border efficiency, legal pathways to citizenship, and update our outdated immigration laws through immigration reform to address cyclical migration patterns.”

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