Politics & Government

Pressed by Trump administration, Yoder drops support for Democratic asylum plan

Under intense pressure from his Republican base and the Trump administration, Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas now says he no longer supports a Democratic plan to make it easier for migrants fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence to claim asylum in the United States.

Yoder, who chairs a subcommittee responsible for homeland security funding, is facing a fierce re-election battle in a suburban Kansas City district that Democrat Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016.

The Republican congressman from Overland Park, Kansas, told McClatchy this week that the asylum proposal “may be too controversial to make it through the process” and will be dropped.

It’s a striking reversal for Yoder.

He stunned Democrats and Republicans alike in July when he rebuffed a personal appeal from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and threw his support behind the Democratic asylum proposal offered by Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina.

Price’s plan would forbid the use of federal funds to enforce the Trump administration’s stricter rules on asylum seekers. Yoder’s initial support directly contradicted a June Sessions ruling that immigration judges should not allow fear of domestic or gang violence as grounds for granting asylum.

Despite Sessions’ plea — and over the objections of legislative staffers at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Customs and Border Patrol — Yoder spoke in favor of the proposal and allowed it to pass the House appropriations committee on July 25 by voice vote, according to three sources familiar with the discussion. The voice vote meant lawmakers didn’t have to record their support or opposition by name.

The proposal became part of next year’s homeland security spending bill, which also includes $5 billion for President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. The bill is pending in the House.

Yoder was chairing the House Appropriations Committee deliberation on the spending bill, and prior to the vote on the Price plan, word got out Yoder was a supporter.

The news triggered a furor in the Trump administration.

Immigration staffers went to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s office and expressed concern about Yoder’s support for the proposal, according to a person familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

When Nielsen’s chief of staff, Chad Wolf, did not act quickly enough to stop the plan from passing the committee, the same staffers approached Sessions’ office.

Sessions made a personal phone call to Yoder’s chief of staff Dave Natonski, according to three sources familiar with the discussion.

In the call, Sessions explained the implications of the Democratic asylum proposal Yoder supported. Yoder’s chief of staff responded politely that he understood.

But Yoder, who had just received a ringing re-election endorsement from Trump on Twitter, backed the amendment anyway.

Yoder even delivered a brief speech before the vote to underscore his support. The congressman said he believed strongly in protecting women from domestic violence and that it should be a factor in an asylum claim.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “should at least be able to look at domestic violence issues or other circumstances on the asylum claim,” he said. “And while I understand there are some people in the committee who have sharply different opinions on this, for my part, I’ll be voting aye.”

The backlash was swift. Conservative media personalities and publications accused Yoder of betraying Trump’s agenda. Talk show host Laura Ingraham called Yoder out by name on Fox News Channel and on Twitter. Breitbart News, a right-wing website, published a series of scathing articles.

Price responded to Yoder’s reversal on Twitter Thursday, saying he was “extremely disappointed that my GOP colleagues are siding with Breitbart and Laura Ingraham over the victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. I plan to fight in every way possible to ensure my bipartisan provision remains in the final bill.”

Yoder acknowledged on Tuesday that Sessions opposed the proposal.

“His only issue was the asylum,” he said.

The congressman downplayed his own role in adding the asylum provision to the bill.

“I didn’t bring the amendment,” he said. “The Democrats brought that amendment in committee. We worked with the information that we had.”

The legislation could be redirected to another committee after it is removed from the budget bill, Yoder said.

“What we don’t want to do is open up an opportunity for false claims and so what’s tricky to do is figure out how legitimate claims, particularly on domestic violence, can be made without allowing opportunities for false claims to be created,” he said.

Yoder referenced “an allegation saying that 32 million would be able to make this claim now,” a figure that appears to have originated from a Breitbart post that simply added up the total population of three Central American countries.

“A lot of that’s overstated, but that’s an area where I think the Judiciary Committee might have to do some work for us,” Yoder said.

Yoder pledged that another provision he added to the bill “is not coming out.”

He said he will ensure the final homeland security spending bill will include language from his Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which aims to reduce the green card backlog for highly skilled workers from India and China, some of whom have been waiting years for permanent resident status. The legislation would lift per-country caps for employment-based immigrants.

Yoder said Tuesday he will continue to push for a vote on the bill on its own, but its most likely path to the president’s desk is as a provision in the homeland security budget.

A floor vote is unlikely before the November election, Yoder said.

Franco Ordonez and Anita Kumar of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.