It’s worth unpacking just how absurd this veto threat really is, before trying to work through the complex issues all this raises.
The House bill would spend $788 million on new facilities to alleviate overcrowding in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) centers. This is where asylum-seeking families and unaccompanied children first arrive, typically after they’ve turned themselves in at the border, and stay while waiting to enter the asylum system. (Many families that do enter the system are getting released pending hearings.)
The bill would also spend more than $100 million on food, water, sanitary supplies, and medical care at those facilities.
In addition, the bill would spend $866 million on facilities run through the Health and Human Services Department network. That’s where unaccompanied children (as opposed to families) are sent after their stint at CBP. Right now children are not being transported to HHS as quickly as required because of space shortages at HHS — helping produce the backlogs in CBP facilities that have horrified the nation.
Thus, much of the bill’s money would be geared toward alleviating the overcrowding and the conditions that families and children are facing.
So why is Trump threatening to veto this bill?
It’s in part because it underfunds Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. The bill would spend $128 million on ICE — but mostly for things such as medical support and health-care costs at detention centers, alternative pathways for detention (such as community group monitoring), and transporting children to HHS.
Trump is also angry because the bill places limits on the way HHS can run facilities designed to handle the spillover of children, to force higher standards. The House bill imposes tougher such limits and allows for stricter congressional oversight than another version of the bill in the Senate.
But the idea that this would provide Trump grounds for a veto is ludicrous. If the House, as expected, passes the bill, and the Senate version passes, presumably leadership on both sides will quickly try to work out a compromise.
That compromise would likely end up somewhat to the right of the House bill, but it may well still contain those restrictions. It would be insane for Trump to veto that. He’d be vetoing billions of dollars to alleviate the very overcrowding that is producing the brutal media coverage that has him on the defensive.
The imagery of horrific conditions is unfolding because of backlogs in the first stage of the process (see explainers from Dara Lind and Theresa Brown). That’s the point at which families and children are held by CBP. Some of the House bill’s biggest expenditures would go toward new CBP and HHS facilities, easing those backlogs and overcrowding.
Trump is going to veto a bill containing those things, because it doesn’t also fund ICE detentions? Good luck with that. Presuming Republicans and Democrats work out a compromise, Republicans will want a veto as much as they wanted the government shutdown over his wall. Which is: Not at all.
The battle on the left
To mollify House progressives, Democratic leaders amended the bill to require CBP to adhere to stricter humanitarian standards for migrants, and to toughen up the standards on HHS facilities for children even beyond the original. This just won over a key House progressive, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
Some progressives have argued there’s no way to support this bill without helping to fund Trump’s deportation machinery and horribly inhumane immigration agenda.
Yes, it’s hard to totally keep tabs on how the administration is spending appropriated money. That’s partly due to the nature of the immigration enforcement system, which affords the executive tremendous discretion. There may be a risk that giving the Department of Homeland Security (which runs CBP and ICE) more money means some fungibly leaks toward ends progressives find morally unbearable, and in some sense, the spending helps sustain the current regime.
But the best move for the migrants themselves is for Democrats to pass the bill, and then fight to make sure that as much of the money as possible goes to good humanitarian ends and that as many constraints as possible remain in place to uphold acceptable humanitarian standards. That includes in the negotiations with the Senate that come next.
The alternative seems worse. It’s hard to see how the immediate situation is improved without the House bill — which is better than the Senate one — laid down as the Democratic position. And more money is desperately needed for humanitarian ends. The imperative is to get as much of it to the right places as possible. But to do that, we need to appropriate the money.
Trump could, of course, veto the bill in the end. That seems unlikely, but if so, Democrats will at least have tried to direct aid to the humanitarian crisis now horrifying the nation.