By Nandita Bose, Richard Cowan and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson pressed President Joe Biden on Wednesday to recast U.S. immigration policy during a meeting with lawmakers at the White House about funding for Ukraine.
Republicans in Congress have blocked emergency funding that Biden has requested for Ukraine and threaten to force a partial shutdown of the government in an effort to push new security policies along the U.S.-Mexico border. They blame Biden’s policies for an influx of immigrants into the United States.
Johnson said after the meeting that he told Biden the United States needed substantive policy change on immigration and called the situation at the border a “national security and humanitarian catastrophe.”
Republicans have hammered Biden over immigration and the issue has become a flashpoint in the 2024 presidential election. Biden, a Democrat, is expected to face Republican Donald Trump, an immigration hard-liner who is his party’s presidential front-runner, in the November election.
There were 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States in 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. Politicians on both sides of the U.S. political aisle have been trying to reform what they call a broken system for decades, with no success.
Apprehensions of migrants by U.S. border agents reached nearly 11,000 in a single day in December, which some officials said was near or at a record. The number of arrests dropped to an average of 6,400 per day in a week in late December, an internal government document showed.
Biden sought to reform the immigration system with proposed legislation at the beginning of his term, but it was opposed by Republicans. The White House is open to new restrictions on who can seek U.S. asylum and expanding deportation authority, but many Democrats oppose such measures.
Biden has requested $61.4 billion in additional funding to help supply Ukraine with weapons and replenish U.S. stocks as it nears the two-year mark of its war with Russia. The funds sought for Ukraine is part of a “supplemental” request that also includes $14.3 billion for Israel and $13.6 billion for border protection.
The White House said Biden was optimistic about bipartisan talks in the Senate on the funding request.
“The President called on Congress to quickly provide additional funding to support Ukraine and send a strong signal of U.S. resolve. The President also made clear that we must act now to address the challenges at the border,” the White House said in a statement. “He expressed his commitment to reaching a bipartisan agreement on border policy and the need for additional resources at the border.”
Johnson said he wanted clarity on how the war in Ukraine would be brought to an end. “We need the questions answered about the strategy, about the endgame and about the accountability for the precious treasure of the American people,” he told reporters after the meeting.
A Johnson aide said the speaker agreed on the need to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but felt that securing the U.S. border was a higher priority.
Top U.S. Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said there was agreement in the meeting about tackling both the border and funding for Ukraine.
“There was remarkable consensus in that room. Just about every person in that room – Democrat, Republican, House, Senate – talked about the importance of aiding Ukraine,” Schumer said.
“Everyone in the room also talked about we had to do something about the border. It’s broken and President Biden said he knows that and wants to make really significant change on the border.”
(additional reporting by David Morgan; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Heather Timmons, Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)