Divided House Democrats punt border bill until after recess

‘We want to make sure we do what we’re going to do right,’ Hoyer says

Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar represents El Paso, which has seen a huge influx of migrants. Some Democratic aides said her immigration bill “demonized” U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar represents El Paso, which has seen a huge influx of migrants. Some Democratic aides said her immigration bill “demonized” U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 25, 2019 at 8:20pm

Disagreement in the House Democratic Caucus finally derailed a bill that would have provided more oversight over border agencies coping with an influx of asylum seekers from Central America.

“We want to make sure we do what we’re going to do right,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Thursday afternoon. “There are a number of things that need to be dealt with on the policy. … I think we need to do that in a thoughtful way.”

The Maryland Democrat said the bill would be taken up after the August recess.

In the past few days, Democrats have gone back and forth over passing Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar’s bill that would have prohibited certain Homeland Security Department detention practices, established new training requirements for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and blocked certain administration policies that restrict the ability of migrants to seek U.S. asylum.

Escobar represents El Paso, a border city that has seen a huge influx of migrants.

The bill came out of committee with provisions that some members found objectionable, according to Democratic aides. Some of those prohibited CBP from separating children from their families under almost all circumstances and required migrants to be released or transferred from initial CBP custody within 72 hours.

Other provisions would have made border officers subject to fines of up to $10,000 if they violated the prohibition on family separation.

Some aides said the bill “demonized” CBP agents, who have come under fire over the mistreatment of some migrants in custody.

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The bill was reported out of the House Homeland Security Committee on July 19. That version would have blocked several recent Trump administration policies including the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the Remain in Mexico program, that requires migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum cases are being processed. It also would have ended CBP’s metering practice, which limits the number of people who can request asylum at a port of entry each day depending on resources and availability. And it would have repealed Trump’s rule that asylum seekers transiting through a third country would have to seek asylum there first before trying to enter the United States.

Those three provisions were stricken from the bill this week, according to a copy of a manager’s amendment obtained by CQ Roll Call on Thursday. Striking those provisions also cut $5 billion from the cost of the bill, according to notes accompanying the amendment.

Fears that a Republican motion to recommit, or MTR — a last-minute opportunity for the minority to amend the measure — might expose divisions among Democrats on immigration right before the recess led to the bill ultimately being pulled, a senior Democratic aide said.

Republicans have won four MTRs this year — two of which were immigration-related — with the support of more moderate Democrats. One of those votes occurred Wednesday night, when 41 Democrats helped Republicans add language to commend border patrol agents for their work to an immigration bill by California Rep. Raul Ruiz that would establish health standards for migrant detention centers.

Another immigration-related MTR, approved in February with the assistance of 26 Democrats, added language to a bill to expand background checks on gun purchases that would require ICE to be notified if an undocumented immigrant tries to buy a gun.

Other action

On Thursday before departing for recess, the House did manage to pass a bill that grants Temporary Protected Status for 18 months to Venezuelans living in the United States, but only after the measure failed Tuesday under suspension, a fast-track processing requiring a two-thirds vote.

Because of the turmoil in the South American nation, many Venezuelans have fled to the United States. To receive TPS status, qualifying individuals must be continuously present in the U.S. after enactment, be legally admissible to the U.S. as immigrants and register with the Homeland Security Department.

The internal division on the Escobar bill came after the House passed Ruiz’s measure earlier this week.

That bill would require every person in CBP custody to receive a health screening by a medical professional to identify acute conditions and high-risk vulnerabilities. In addition, individuals in CBP custody would have to receive the medically appropriate number of calories for age and weight to height ratio, including special diets for babies and pregnant and breastfeeding women.

“When I visited the CBP detention facilities at our border, I saw dirty, inhumane conditions that threatened the health of infants, toddlers and pregnant women,” Ruiz said. “Six children have now died under their custody, and therefore are the responsibility of our federal government.”

The White House has threatened to veto the Ruiz bill. “The administration is committed to the humane treatment of migrants within its custody, including at CBP short-term facilities. If fully implemented, however, the bill would require a complete overhaul of CBP facilities, increase staffing requirements beyond currently funded levels, and significantly increase the amount of time migrants spend in short-term CBP custody,” the Office of Management and Budget said.

The Senate is unlikely to take up any of the bills.

Tanvi Misra and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.