Congress

Border spending bill sent to Senate floor, but House may act on its version first

Measure provides slightly less than Trump administration sought, but got bipartisan support from Senate appropriators

Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., right, and Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., prepare for a committee markup Wednesday of an emergency spending bill to address the influx of migrants at the southern border. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate appropriators approved $4.59 billion in emergency funding Wednesday to address the influx of migrants at the southern border, and their House counterparts said they’re prepping a similar bill to bring to the floor as soon as Tuesday.

The measure appropriators sent to the Senate floor provides slightly less than President Donald Trump’s administration had requested, but leaders of both parties said it did not include “poison pills” that could block passage.

Both chambers also appeared set to try to get a bill to Trump’s desk before the July Fourth recess, but House appropriators were planning to move a measure that differed from the Senate one.

The Senate committee vote was 30-1, with only Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, voting nay.

The bill included several provisions Democrats had sought, but also leaves intact money for immigrant detention and the continued military presence at the border. The money would go across four departments — Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, and Health and Human Services.

“This package does not include everything I wanted; it does not include everything Vice Chairman Leahy wanted,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in his opening remarks. “But most importantly, it does not include poison pills from either party,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said: “This package is a humanitarian package to address the desperate needs on our southern border, and it is a good faith compromise.”

A ‘slam dunk’

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he expected the supplemental to be a “slam dunk.”

“We’re talking about money for non-controversial purposes, mostly humanitarian efforts,” he said.

Without elaborating, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said there were differences between the Senate’s approach and what House Democrats would support.

“While House Democrats are still reviewing the Senate border supplemental legislation, my colleagues and I have concerns with the Senate bill as currently written,” Lowey said. “We are continuing to work diligently to finalize legislation to address the humanitarian crisis at the southern border, with a view to bringing a House bill to the floor next week.”

The top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, said she's working with GOP counterparts on the House's own version, which the chamber could take up Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, likely before the Senate acts

“We’re hoping the House is going to move first,” Roybal-Allard said Wednesday. “That’s what we’re working on right now. ... There’s some minor details we’re working out with the Republicans, but our hope is it will be bipartisan.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer confirmed Roybal-Allard’s comments, suggesting Democrats do not want to leave for the July Fourth recess without passing humanitarian aid.

“We'd like to move on it in a bipartisan way so we can pass it in the House and the Senate and go to the president and he can sign it,” the Maryland Democrat said. “If that's not possible, I would hope that we would pass our own version of what we think that humanitarian relief is and a very substantial number because there's a crisis that we deal with and we want to deal with.”

The differences between the House and Senate measures could be reconciled through a conference committee, or the Senate could decide to take up the House version, Roybal-Allard said. Details of the House bill are scarce as it is still being negotiated.

$2.9 billion for care of minors

The Senate bill would provide $2.9 billion out of the total of $4.59 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services, for the care of unaccompanied minors; $1.3 billion for the Department of Homeland Security to provide food, shelter and medical care for detained adult migrants. It also includes $145 million for the Department of Defense for medical, surveillance and maintenance activities at the border.

The bill forbids the Homeland Security Department — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection — from using money dispatched for humanitarian aid for other purposes.

For the Department of Justice, the bill would provide $65 million for 30 new immigration judge teams and for education of migrants so they better understand the U.S. process, which will speed it up. Another $155 million would go to the U.S. Marshals Service to house, transport and care for adult detainees in the agency’s custody.

The bill also includes $30 million for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reimburse local governments and nonprofits taking care of homeless migrants at the border.

“Immigration is a federal responsibility and we shouldn’t be shifting that burden onto local communities,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who sent a letter on June 12 to the committee asking for the $30 million to be included.

The bill contains detailed provisions outlining how migrant children should be housed and cared for. It asks that HHS expand its state-licensed shelter capacity, and that the Office of Inspector General increase oversight of shelters that house unaccompanied minors.

Citizenship information restricted

The bill also restates a provision from the fiscal year 2019 omnibus spending law that restricts HHS from sharing information about the citizenship status of sponsors who come forward to take in migrant children, except in the cases of suspected child molestation, trafficking and other kinds of crimes.

The bill further seeks to curb the use of “temporary influx facilities” — like the privately run one in Homestead, Florida, that is currently holding around 2,400 minors. These facilities are typically exempt from the kind of government requirements for most child shelters. The bill also seeks to limit the amount of time children can spend at such a facility to 30 days.

Senate appropriators also included a provision that requires HHS to provide publicly available information on migrant kids who have been separated from parents — even if it has been done in the children’s own interests. The bill also makes it possible for members of Congress to visit and inspect immigrant detention centers without too much prior notice.

Merkley welcomed the provisions, and particularly praised the $20 million in funding to expand the alternatives to detention program, but said more could be done to safeguard families and children. Specifically, he wanted the Flores Agreement — a court order which regulates the terms and conditions of how minor children are detained — to apply to temporary influx facilities.

“Children shouldn’t be imprisoned in the USA,” he said at the markup. “We should apply Flores to the influx facilities — it’s a massive loophole in the system.” Under Flores, children are normally allowed not to be held beyond 20 days.

The bill would not provide funding to expand Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention bed capacity, as initially sought by the Trump administration. Instead, the Senate package would provide more funding than the White House sought for Customs and Border Protection to provide temporary shelter at processing facilities, as well as basic needs such as food and clothing. In addition, $65 million would be provided to fund 30 new immigration judge teams to help process a large backlog of cases.

The administration originally requested $4.5 billion in May. In that request, $3.3 billion was requested for humanitarian assistance — to set up processing centers and provide food, shelter, medical care and transportation of migrants, which, of late, have overwhelmingly been families and unaccompanied children.

The Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group focused on human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, urged Congress to move quickly on agreeing on the $3.3 billion earmarked for humanitarian aid.

“It’s far from perfect, but it is needed,” said WOLA’s Adam Isacson. “Unlike most things we’ve seen coming out of the White House, this part of the request doesn’t look like it came from (White House senior policy adviser) Stephen Miller’s desk.”

David Lerman, Niels Lesniewski, and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to the report.

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