Border spending package: Aid for migrants, no money for wall

By David Lerman

CQ-Roll Call

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate Appropriations Committee plans to take up a supplemental spending bill next week to address the surge of migrants at the U.S. southern border, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday.

The decision marked the first sign of movement on a stand-alone border funding bill, which President Donald Trump first requested on May 1. Republican leaders had tried to include the money in a $19.1 billion aid package for victims of natural disasters that cleared Congress last week, but Democrats objected, citing various concerns over family detention policies and information sharing about undocumented immigrants among federal agencies.

Those concerns may still need to be addressed in any legislation that moves forward, but both parties have acknowledged the need to better cope with what many lawmakers say is a humanitarian crisis at the border that shows no signs of easing. “It’s far past time to get serious about this to solve this problem,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday on the Senate floor, in urging speedy action.

A Senate appropriations aide said the exact size and content of the package was yet to be determined. In May, the White House requested a total of $4.5 billion, including $3.3 billion for the Health and Human Services and Homeland Security departments mainly to provide shelter and other basic necessities for thousands of unaccompanied children seeking to enter the U.S.

Trump’s supplemental request stopped short of seeking any additional money for a hotly contested border wall.

The biggest piece of the White House request, about $2.9 billion, would be used to provide shelter and other services for unaccompanied migrant children, including for an additional 23,600 beds. And HHS has warned that even that request may no longer be sufficient to keep up with the surge. As much as $1.4 billion in additional aid could be needed soon, it said.

“Today, there are 13,347 unaccompanied children that are the responsibility of the federal government,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said last week. “All of the money to take care of those kids runs out sometime in the next 30 days. The appropriation is gone, the transfer authority is about to be gone, and there is no money to take care of these kids.”

Another $391 million would be provided for DHS to set up processing facilities and shelters for families as well as unaccompanied children to receive food and medical attention before being transferred to other locations.

But efforts to speed relief have been hampered by Democratic concerns over Trump administration detention policies and how information on migrants is shared. Democrats have sought limits on how much information HHS, which cares for unaccompanied children, must share with DHS.

The House Appropriations Committee is considering a fiscal 2020 Homeland Security bill Tuesday that includes language that would bar information sharing that could lead to detention of migrants or the removal of potential sponsors. Exceptions would be allowed in cases when agency officials suspect sponsors have committed crimes such as human trafficking or sexual abuse.

The Democrats’ fiscal 2020 Labor-HHS-Education bill, would go further and bar any HHS funds from being used to carry out the agency’s information-sharing agreement with DHS. That accord, reached in April 2018, lays out a process for HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to jointly determine the suitability of potential sponsors to take custody of unaccompanied children. Democrats charge the deal prevents sponsors from coming forward for fear of detention and deportation.

Trump’s supplemental request also included $1.1 billion for DHS, with $342 million to expand detention bed capacity, a provision opposed by Democrats. Another $530 million would be for personnel costs and increased transportation and housing expenses.

An aide to Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy said the Vermont Democrat had not seen the draft supplemental package being written by the GOP and couldn’t take a position on it. Leahy supports humanitarian assistance but other portions of the White House request are nonstarters, the aide said.

Meanwhile House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday that he’s hopeful a bipartisan deal on border funds can be reached this month, before lawmakers leave town for the July Fourth recess.

“It is clear that we have humanitarian crisis at the border. We need to act on that. We need to appropriate significant sums … to accommodate in a humanitarian way those folks who are fleeing oppression, violence, etcetera, etcetera,” the Maryland Democrat said. “The key issue is are we dealing with humanitarian or are we dealing with enforcement? They’re not the same. And there is substantial concern that they will conflate them. That’s the problem.”