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Senate GOP border aid package to largely track Trump request

Top Democrat on Appropriations details demands that will earn votes on measure

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell outlined the border supplemental aid package the Senate will move in the coming days. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell outlined the border supplemental aid package the Senate will move in the coming days. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans appear likely to bless President Donald Trump’s $4.5 billion emergency border funding request in its entirety, gambling that either just enough Democrats will fall in line or they’ll be able to send a signal to the White House that it’s time to negotiate.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up a yet-to-be-unveiled draft supplemental measure June 19. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday it will contain $4.5 billion, including “more than $3 billion” for food, shelter, medical care and other necessities for the thousands of unaccompanied minors and families seeking refuge from violence in their home countries, many from the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Those figures largely match the White House request, initially submitted May 1, and the mix of funding set aside by Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby is expected to closely resemble that proposal.

The problem is Democrats have loudly objected to portions of the $1.2 billion in the request set aside for Border Patrol operations, and in particular funds to expand Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention capacity. There’s also an ongoing dispute over information-sharing between the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, which affects the ability of potential sponsors to take custody of unaccompanied children in HHS care.

“We may disagree about what has led to this crisis, what changes may be needed to our immigration system, but I take issue with claims across the aisle that Democrats oppose any and all solutions to address the crisis,” Senate Appropriations ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy said on the floor Wednesday.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the office within HHS that takes care of unaccompanied migrant children, is set to run out of money within weeks and has already been dipping into other programs and cutting off services to make ends meet.

The surge of migrants, including unaccompanied children, has overwhelmed the capacity of agencies managing the border and led the Pentagon and HHS to announce this week that they would have to begin housing unaccompanied minors at military installations, including Fort Sill Army Base in Oklahoma.

That facility, used during World War II as an internment camp for Japanese Americans, was also employed by the Obama administration in 2014 to temporarily house migrant children awaiting deportation proceedings. Oklahoma Republican Sens. James M. Inhofe and James Lankford, as well as Rep. Tom Cole, blasted the Obama decision at the time but gave Trump’s move their grudging support in a statement Wednesday.

“While I am disappointed that Democrats continue to ignore the crisis, I have spoken to the Trump administration and local base officials and am confident that, unlike in 2014, there is an organized, responsible plan for temporarily housing unaccompanied minors at Fort Sill that will not have an adverse impact to readiness or the missions at Fort Sill,” said Inhofe, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Democratic demands

Leahy on Wednesday detailed what Democrats want to see in a border supplemental that could win their votes. He said there should be standards to prevent overcrowded conditions that have led to people having to sleep outside and be held in unpleasant conditions.

“Customs and Border Protection processing facilities are vastly over capacity, and that not only creates dangerous conditions for the migrants in our care, but also dangerous conditions for our border patrol staff,” he said.

The ORR should be able to place minors only in facilities that meet state licensing requirements, Leahy said. They should also have access to education, recreation and legal services that have been curtailed due to recent cutbacks.

Leahy said DHS should be barred from using information about potential sponsors of undocumented children to deport them. “Instead of saying ‘Thank you,’ we say, ‘Well, we’re going to check your background, maybe we should deport you.’”

Members of Congress should have access to the detention facilities, he said.

The Trump administration also should not be able to divert money Congress appropriates for humanitarian assistance to border barrier construction, Leahy said.

Democrats, he added, will not agree to expand ICE detention bed space, for which the administration has requested about $342 million. They argue ICE should instead use alternative, less expensive forms of monitoring undocumented immigrants and detain those who have criminal records.

Democrats want to ensure that foreign aid funding, meant to help stabilize the countries from which people are fleeing, goes to those countries.

“Congress should also ensure that funding it approved two years ago … to deal with the root cause of immigration from Central America, is spent for those purposes,” he said. “If we don’t deal with the reasons people are leaving their countries, of course they’re going to keep coming. That’s just common sense.”

The White House in March ordered the suspension of about $450 million appropriated for development and humanitarian aid to the three Northern Triangle countries, the source of most of the asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. through Mexico.

On the other side of the Capitol, the border debate spilled over onto the House floor Wednesday, as a group of Republicans offered a series of procedural motions delaying debate on a $985 billion, four-bill fiscal 2020 appropriations bundle. They said their tactics were aimed at calling attention to a border crisis Democrats were ignoring.

House Democrats have said they’re ready to negotiate a border supplemental but outlined the same concerns that Leahy and others have on the Senate side.

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