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Democrats press Biden administration to expand efforts to help Americans, families leave Gaza

A group of Democratic and independent senators are calling on the Biden administration to change its policies to allow more Americans and their families to depart Gaza, as fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas rages on in the region.

In a Tuesday letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the 16 senators asked for the eligibility requirement for administration assistance to expand beyond immediate family members of American citizens.

The coalition also requested an increase of assistance for relatives of American citizens who have already departed Gaza and are hoping to unite with family in the U.S.

As it stands, U.S. citizens and their relatives looking to leave Gaza and enter Egypt through the Rafah crossing are required to submit their information to the State Department, which then determines whether the applicants meet the eligibility criteria for assistance.

The list of those approved to cross is then passed on to authorities in Egypt and Israel and posted to the Facebook page of the Palestinian General Authority for Crossings and Borders, according to the State Department.

The group of Senators — led by Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — said they have “serious concerns” about several aspects to the selection process.

They pressed Blinken and Mayorkas to specify the basis the department determines eligibility upon and what processes are available for those stuck in Gaza who are not approved for assistance due to their visas expiring during the conflict.

In their letter, the senators called for the eligibility to include “at a minimum, any American citizen’s children, siblings, and sibling’s spouses and children — regardless of marital status” along with unmarried grandchildren under the age of 21, and asked officials to expedite review and approval of Gaza residents’ applications for humanitarian parole in the United States.

“As a result of the dangerous circumstances on the ground, we urge you to quickly implement these changes in policy to help U.S. citizens and their family members get out of harm’s way,” they wrote.

The Hill reached out to the Homeland Security and State departments for comment.

Fighting in Gaza has continued for more than four months since Hamas launched a surprise assault on southern Israel that left about 1,200 people dead. More than 240 hostages were taken in the incursion as well.

Israeli forces have vowed to eliminate Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007. Israel’s military operation by air, land, and sea has killed more than 28,000 people in the territory, according to Health Ministry in Gaza.

The climbing death toll, along with debilitating conditions in the territory’s neighborhoods, hospitals and refugee camps, has caused growing calls for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

U.S. leaders are working to secure a six-week truce between the two sides that would allow for the release of hostages and boosted humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netayanu left international talks in Cairo aimed at this truce due to what he called “delusional demands” from Hamas.

The Israel-Hamas war has caused divisions among Congress, with billions in aid to Israel being stalled amid opposition from some members of both parties.

The Senate passed a $95.3 billion emergency defense spending legislation early Tuesday morning, which would provide funding to Israel, Ukraine, U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific and provide humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in Gaza.

The bill could run into opposition in the House, where Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has indicated he would not put it up for a vote as it lacks the border security measures demanded by House GOP members months earlier.

The House last week torpedoed a separate stand-alone bill that would’ve provided $17.6 billion in aid for Israel.

Co-signers on the letter include Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), John Fetterman (Pa.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Jon Ossoff (Ga.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Raphael Warnock (Ga.), Mark Warner (Va.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Peter Welch (Vt.) and Independent Bernie Sanders (Vt.).

Source: The Hill

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