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Funding for migrant children running out with no deal in sight

Contractors could be asked to take care of 13,000 kids without pay

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., arrives at the Capitol on July 27, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., arrives at the Capitol on July 27, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If Congress can’t pass a supplemental spending bill for border agencies within the next month, the administration could have to ask contractors to take care of more than 13,000 unaccompanied migrant children without being paid, according to Sen. Roy Blunt.

“Today there are 13,347 unaccompanied children that are the responsibility of the federal government,” the Missouri Republican said Tuesday. “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.”

Blunt is chairman of the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the Office of Refugee Resettlement. That agency takes custody of unaccompanied children initially apprehended by Department of Homeland Security immigration officials, while seeking to place the children with potential sponsors, such as family members already in the U.S.

But the agency’s capacity has been strained by a massive influx of migrants at the southern border, and last month the White House asked Congress for an additional $2.9 billion to help provide shelter, food and medicine due to dwindling supplies. The administration later informed lawmakers that HHS might need up to $1.4 billion more, on top of the initial ask.

White House budget documents noted ORR was likely to burn through its entire fiscal 2019 appropriation plus another $385 million in funds transferred from other accounts before the end of the fiscal year.

In addition, the White House on May 16 informed appropriators HHS would need to reallocate funding from activities not directly related to the “safety of human life, protection of property, or the immediate welfare of individuals” in order to provide minimum standards of care. But that money is now projected to run out within a month.

“We’ll be at a point where we are talking to the grantees — largely not-for-profit groups who have become grantees with the federal government — and saying like you would in any government shutdown, ‘If you would just continue to take care of these 13,347 kids at some point in the future we’ll pay you to do that.’ The Congress needs to act on this just like it would any other emergency,” Blunt added.

Information sharing

Lawmakers have been working for more than a month to reach a bipartisan consensus and had hoped to attach border-related funding to the $19.1 billion disaster aid bill that cleared the House on Monday. But disagreements over when and how HHS could share information on potential sponsors of unaccompanied children with DHS for background checks was one of the sticking points that led lawmakers to pass a standalone disaster aid bill instead.

House appropriators included language in a draft fiscal 2020 Homeland Security bill released Tuesday that would generally bar information sharing that could lead to detention or removal of potential sponsors. Exceptions would be allowed in cases where agency officials have reason to believe a potential sponsor has been involved in crimes such as sexual abuse of minors, human trafficking or other offenses. That language is identical to a bipartisan provision included in the fiscal 2019 omnibus spending law.

The House Democrats’ fiscal 2020 Labor-HHS-Education bill, expected on the floor next week, would go further, barring any funds for detention or removal if information provided to immigration officials comes from the unaccompanied children themselves. The measure also would generally prevent HHS funds from being used to implement the original April 2018 information-sharing agreement between that agency and DHS related to unaccompanied migrant children.

It’s not clear what the specific holdup was on the information-sharing provisions in the border supplemental, however.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday criticized Democrats for the slow pace of negotiations. “They need to take their heads out of the sand and work with us on our side of the border to address the humanitarian crisis that their resistance has contributed to,” the Kentucky Republican said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, however, questioned whether the administration is serious about finding common ground.

“It’s hard to tell where the administration is at in terms of wanting to really deal with the immigration problem through a substantive lens or whether it’s all about politics and a campaign applause line and political promises that Donald Trump made on the campaign trail,” the New York Democrat said.

If negotiators broker an agreement, a border supplemental could pass as a standalone bill or it could be added to other legislation that needs to pass in the coming weeks.

One option could be an extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program that passed the House this week following a 357-55 vote. That program lapses June 30.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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