The US Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill Wednesday to send US$4.6 billion in additional aid to the southwestern border, as federal agencies there warn that they will run out of money to house and cope with the flow of Central American immigrants.
The bipartisan agreement, which the committee advanced 30-1, allocates about US$2.9-billion for the care of migrant children and US$1.3-billion to improve facilities at the border. It does not allow the Department of Homeland Security to add beds at detention centers or migrant processing facilities.
The agreement also includes oversight provisions sought by Democrats, including prohibiting the Office of Refugee Resettlement from sharing information with immigration officials about people who take custody of unaccompanied children. The restriction was designed to prevent authorities from using the process of locating a family member or guardian of a migrant child as a backdoor means of finding immigrants in the country illegally.
But the compromise was reached without input from House Democrats, who have been working on their own version, and it is unclear how the two measures align in addressing the administration’s urgent push for additional money at the border.
“While House Democrats are still reviewing the Senate border supplemental legislation, my colleagues and I have concerns with the Senate bill as currently written,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. She said they hoped to bring a bill to the House floor next week.
Concerns from House Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, about sending more money to agencies without stronger oversight, had led to the measure being pulled from an emergency relief package that passed the House last month. On Tuesday, House Democrats sent their Republican counterparts the text of their legislation, according to a congressional aide.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, said he planned a vote on the stand-alone measure next week, before members leave for their Fourth of July recess; House lawmakers have similar plans for their own measure.
Having endured the nation’s longest government shutdown over funding President Donald Trump’s border wall, lawmakers were careful to emphasize that the measure would primarily address humanitarian needs, including food, diapers and fundamental necessities for migrants in custody, and did not include money for the wall.
The measure also allocates overtime pay for agents and officials at the border, as well as money for 30 new immigration judge teams to address a backlog of cases.
“Our border security professionals and the children and families in their care cannot afford further delay,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the committee, who asked his members to avoid adding amendments that would affect broader immigration policy. “I’m hopeful that a strong bipartisan vote will provide the momentum needed to assist our folks on the front lines.”
Administration officials have warned Congress that without additional funding at the border, detainment centers and shelters for migrant children would continue to operate beyond capacity. The Office of Refugee Resettlement said this month that it would begin restricting or canceling legal aid, education and playground recreation for migrant children housed in government shelters as a result of financial constraints.
Mark Morgan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told reporters this month that Congress had “failed” in supporting the efforts at the border.
“I’m here as ICE begging for this,” Morgan said. “We need that to get the families out of the Border Patrol detention facilities and into better facilities.”
The situation at the southwestern border — in May, more than 144,200 migrants were taken into custody there, the highest monthly total in 13 years — prompted most of the lawmakers to offer their support for the measure in committee. Five children have died in federal custody in recent months.
As the chief architects of the compromise, Shelby and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s top Democrat, noted that both sides were forced to acquiesce on certain issues to reach the agreement.
“Do I like every aspect of this bill?” Leahy said. “No.”
But, he added, “we do not have the luxury of acting unilaterally on this committee or in the Senate.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., chairwoman of the committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee, told her colleagues that the measure “strikes a careful balance among competing views” and that spending bills for the next fiscal year would provide a chance to seek more funding for detention beds and expediting immigration proceedings.
For Democrats, the oversight provisions, including preventing the money from being redirected toward construction of the border wall, requiring a monthly public report on the separation of families and money to accelerate processing of unaccompanied children, were enough to garner their support for the committee vote.
It is unclear how that will translate to the Senate floor next week. Multiple senators, including Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., want clearer oversight language. If it is weakened, they could oppose the measure.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the lone no vote on the committee, said he still had a number of concerns about enforcement and facility conditions, including the failure to address for-profit centers housing migrant children.
“America is better than this — the way we’re treating migrant children, migrant families waiting adjudication,” he said.
But lawmakers were quick to emphasize that the package was a temporary solution for handling the surge in Central American families seeking asylum at the border and that a long-term solution was needed to improve the nation’s immigration system.
“All of us know perfectly well that immigration is a politically charged subject,” McConnell said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “But surely, at a minimum, Congress ought to at least be able to provide these emergency funds.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would postpone a markup scheduled this week to advance his own immigration legislation, which would radically overhaul asylum in the United States, making it far more difficult for some migrants to qualify and blocking many people from even seeking it. The measure would also do away with a court-ordered requirement that children be held for no more than 20 days in an immigration detention facility and alter a law that bars unaccompanied children from Central America from being quickly deported.
Graham, who met Tuesday with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Durbin to explore a bipartisan compromise on asylum, said he had postponed action in his committee to provide more time to reach a deal.
Durbin, who has been carrying around a sheet of yellow legal paper listing potential areas of consensus, has said he is open to such a compromise even though he and other Democrats consider most provisions of Graham’s bill unacceptable. He has proposed increasing the number of immigration judges available for asylum claims and providing aid to Central American countries conditioned on steps to deal with the root causes of migration. Durbin also wants to allow people to apply for asylum from their own countries, while Graham’s bill would essentially require that, blocking migrants who did not do so from seeking asylum in the United States.
But without a more permanent solution, Graham warned Wednesday as the humanitarian aid package was approved, “you better get ready to do this again, and again, and again.”