The Senate Appropriations Committee voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve a $4.6 billion emergency spending bill for the U.S.-Mexico border, acting with unusual bipartisan urgency to address the surge of migrants arriving from Central America.
The committee vote was 30-to-1, with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) casting the only “no” vote. Approval by the full Senate is expected next week, although negotiations continue in the House.
The legislation responds to a spending request the Trump administration sent to Capitol Hill last month to address the overwhelming numbers of Central American families and minors arriving at the border, which have pushed U.S. facilities and personnel past capacity. More than 675,000 immigrants have arrived at the border so far in the fiscal year, a massive spike in the numbers.
“Our personnel on the ground are doing everything they can to secure the border and care for these vulnerable populations. But their determination has outstripped their resources,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). “The situation is past the breaking point. We must act.”
The legislation includes $2.88 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to address the large numbers of unaccompanied children arriving at the border. Through May, nearly 51,000 children have been referred to HHS since the fiscal year began in October, an increase of almost 60 percent compared with the same period last year.
HHS has been running short of funds, and earlier this month, the administration canceled English classes, recreational programs such as soccer, and legal aid for children in federal holding facilities. The funding bill will allow HHS to resume those services and expand its shelter capacity, the Appropriations Committee said.
Without action, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the HHS division that ischarged with caring for unaccompanied children, will run out of funding by the end of this month, and more services would have to be cut, senators warned.
“This is not who we are as a country. We need to take action,” said the Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.). “This package provides the resources necessary to ensure that children and families fleeing violence and poverty receive appropriate medical care and legal assistance.”
However, the Senate deal has not been agreed to by the House, where the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has objected to the administration’s plans for some of the money it has sought. Hispanic Caucus leaders have grown particularly alarmed since President Trump announced over Twitter this week that his administration would begin mass roundups of unauthorized immigrants who’ve made it into the United States .
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday that House leaders hope to act before the end of the month, when Congress will leave town for a one-week Fourth of July recess. The House has been working on its own version of the bill, which could end up getting merged with the Senate version.
“We don’t want to leave here without humanitarian resources to handle what is a humanitarian crisis at the border,” Hoyer told reporters. “There is no doubt that that exists, and we want to move on it as quickly as possible, and we’d like to move on in a bipartisan way.”
Democrats sought throughout negotiations to ensure that money in the spending package could not be used for immigration purposes they oppose. For example, money in the border bill cannot be used to fund the wall Trump is trying to build along the border.
In another sticking point, Democrats said they got language in the bill to ensure thatinformation obtained from potential sponsors of unaccompanied children would not be used in immigration enforcement activities. The concern is that unauthorized immigrants already in the United States who are related to children arriving at the border are afraid to come forward because they don’t want to end up getting deported.
But Merkley, who cast the lone “no” vote, said there was no way to enforce the language aimed at ensuring relatives would not get deported. He also said the bill does nothing to address the use of for-profit holding facilities that have a financial incentive to keep immigrants in their properties rather than find a way to place them through family members or social service agencies.
“This no-competition, for-profit child prison system. This is a deep scar on America that we have to end,” Merkley said. “I want to raise these issues because America is better than this.”
On a parallel track, two senior senators — Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) — have privately begun conversations about potential revisions to asylum laws that would be palatable to both parties. As those talks continue, Graham, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, announced he’d be delaying a committee vote planned for Thursday on asylum legislation, to allow time for a bipartisan deal to take shape.
Graham and Durbin met quietly Tuesday with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser, to see what kind of compromise could be reached between Congress and the Trump administration.
“There are some things that are unacceptable to us. I’ve made that clear to Lindsey,” Durbin said in a brief interview Wednesday. “But there are about five things we have in common.”
Yet Graham, a close Trump ally, was already facing a revolt from his own Republican ranks as several GOP senators pushed him to include much tougher provisions on asylum that would win over more conservative support but would ensure that any efforts to revise immigration laws would be sharply partisan.
The dozen Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee met privately last week to discuss Graham’s legislation, asking him for several changes that they say will help lower the rising numbers of migrants arriving at the southern border. But Graham had agreed to only about half of them, according to two Republican officials familiar with the discussions.
Without the changes, several GOP senators on the committee — including Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), Mike Lee (Utah), Ted Cruz (Tex.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and John Neely Kennedy (La.) — were prepared to vote against Graham’s bill until he yanked it from the committee’s Thursday agenda, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal negotiations. The changes demanded by the GOP senators had the endorsement of the White House, one of the officials said.
Graham did agree to axing a provision in his legislation that would allow migrant children to be detained for up to 100 days — a figure dramatically higher than the current 20-day limit. The conservative Republican senators want there to be no limit at all.
Now, with bipartisan discussions with Durbin underway, it’s unclear how Graham can advance asylum legislation that has the support of Democrats but also a majority of Republicans on his committee.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.