Border politics threaten push to boost spending on migrant aid

The Biden administration and Senate Democratic leadership see a need for more assistance for local nonprofits that help asylum-seekers

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy says local programs to help migrants “are going to shut down, they’re going to run out of money.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy says local programs to help migrants “are going to shut down, they’re going to run out of money.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 22, 2022 at 1:12pm

Partisan division over U.S.-Mexico border security threatens to tank a Democratic effort this month to ramp up federal grant funds to help migrants who recently crossed the border, including those whom Republican-led states have bused and flown across the country.

Both the White House and Senate Democratic leadership hope to include language in an upcoming stopgap funding measure to boost assistance for local nonprofits that help asylum-seekers.

The push represents Washington’s response to Republican governors who, in order to voice opposition to the Biden administration’s border policies, have sent migrants to areas they perceive as politically liberal — such as Chicago, New York City and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. — in an apparent stunt that has local governments asking for help.

Those actions have prompted public outcry, litigation and threats of criminal probes — and now behind-the-scenes negotiations on whether funding will be included in the spending bill that must be passed before the end of the month to avoid a government shutdown.

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security panel, said in a brief interview Wednesday that the local programs to help migrants “are going to shut down, they’re going to run out of money.”

The grant program, known as the emergency food and shelter program, provides funds to local nonprofits and social services combating homelessness. In fiscal 2022, Congress allocated $150 million toward this fund, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to support organizations helping migrants released after crossing the border.

“It’s hard to imagine the consequences of not increasing the humanitarian assistance line item,” Murphy said.

Republican concerns

But the request to bolster the program, one of a number of requests in the stopgap spending bill ahead of midterm elections in November, could fall prey to political outrage over border security that has kept Capitol Hill gridlocked on even more narrow immigration measures.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced earlier this week that it has already logged more than 2.1 million encounters with migrants at the southwest border this fiscal year, marking the busiest year at the border in recent history and prompting outcry from congressional Republicans.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said Wednesday that the Biden administration has not “convinced me that they have a plan to handle 2 million people that have come across the border.”

“Until I see that I’m not, I’m not looking too favorably on it,” Capito said of a potential boost to grant funding.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, raised similar concerns.

“If our solution to that is just to put more money into helping those who aren’t coming legally, or coming as asylees, we need to switch the policy,” Portman said.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, however, signaled he may be open to including language boosting the grant program in the continuing resolution.

“As long as the administration isn’t going to fix the border, we’ve got to figure out what to do with these folks. I think we all agree they need to be treated compassionately, humanely, so I’m certainly willing to look at that in the interim,” Cornyn said. “If we have to do something, we have to do something.”

On the other side of the Capitol, spending leaders say that negotiations over what to add to the stopgap funding measure are still in early stages.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Wednesday they are “still in discussions” and could not provide anything “more definitive.”

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., who chairs the Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security panel, said negotiations are still “going back and forth” and final language is still “in flux.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, vice chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee, also raised concerns that extra grant funds could be provided to Northeastern cities at the expense of border communities that receive thousands of migrants each day.

“One of the things I will look at very carefully is make sure that there is no effort to divert most of the money to the eastern coast, as opposed to the southern border,” Cuellar said.

Cities ‘stretched thin’

The funding debate comes as Republican governors from Texas, Arizona and Florida grab national attention for sending migrants to major cities across the country that are not accustomed to such an influx.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a Sept. 14 news release that after receiving 11,000 migrants from border states, the city’s shelter system is “nearing its breaking point.”

Earlier this month, nearly two dozen House Democrats from cities including Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago, asked for an additional $50 million above current levels for humanitarian assistance for migrants, warning that busing migrants has “increased funding requests across the Northeast and the Midwest.”

According to the lawmakers, about $85 million of the $150 million in migrant emergency funds remained as of late July, and the emergency food and shelter program “may exhaust its funding.”

The White House asked for language in its recent anomalies request that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to spend program funds as needed to help those jurisdictions. And Senate Democrats have quickly backed the request.

On Friday, following reports that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had 50 migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, and eight other Senate Democrats urged congressional appropriators to include not only the White House’s anomalies request but also “additional funding for this account based on the increased needs” of local governments receiving migrants.

“Communities and organizations are on the front-lines of assisting migrants coming to our border and resources are being stretched thin as they take on the role of performing a federal government function,” the senators wrote. “This funding is vitally important as more cities in the United States receive refugees and asylum seekers.”

Still, Murphy said there is not “natural enthusiasm from Republicans about supporting humanitarian relief on the border.”

“I think we’ve got some work to do,” he said.