For weeks, President Trump’s request for billions in funding to manage the migration surge at the U.S.-Mexico border has been ignored by Congress, as he continues to fuel partisan flames around immigration that his critics say hamper the prospects of an agreement.
At the same time, Democrats who control the House have been struggling to reconcile their own internal divisions over the spending request as some in the party question whether the situation on the southern border is as dire as portrayed by the administration.
This has led to a lack of urgency on Capitol Hill to address a problem leaders in both parties agree is worsening and raising the prospect that the funding request could languish. Congress failed to approve a similar proposal by President Barack Obama in 2014, but unlike then, lawmakers in both parties seem less focused on the issue even though the number of migrants being apprehended at the border now is far higher than it was five years ago.
Not until Tuesday was there some apparent progress in Congress, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced the Appropriations Committee would begin working on the $4.5 billion package next week and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met privately to discuss what language they could accept as part of the administration’s spending request.
But it’s unclear whether any border package endorsed by Democrats will pass muster with the Trump administration, which has repeatedly asked Congress for legal changes to expand detention capacities and tighten asylum policy but has been rebuffed.
Democrats are also grappling with their deep distrust of Trump on immigration and are demanding strict restrictions on how any money approved by Congress can be used.
“I think that the president — in his actions and in his words — creates an over-dramatization that then leads people to think, well, this isn’t as significant because he’s just throwing out red meat to his base,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “The other thing is, I think there would have been action already had there been reasonable requests and, you know, and a willingness to constrain themselves.”
Congressional negotiators came close to reaching a deal on the administration’s border spending request in time to attach it to a broader disaster aid bill that passed last month but ran out of time. Submitted to Congress on May 1, the Trump administration’s spending request included $3.3 billion for humanitarian assistance and $1.1 billion for border operations.
Since then, concerns have been raised, in particular, by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who want to ensure the money would go toward genuine humanitarian purposes and not to increase detention of asylum seekers or fund for-profit detention facilities.
Some of these members have disputed how Trump and top officials have characterized the problem at the border — frustrating other Democrats who have been working closely with the administration on the spending request.
“There is definitely an uptick, there’s no doubt about that. I mean, is it as gigantic as they say? No. And is it as disruptive as they say? No, it’s not,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.). “They always say never waste a crisis; well, this is a small crisis. He’s trying to make it into a big one and not waste it, in the sense of making more prison space for kids, funding his wall, doing all sorts of other things that I don’t think are very democratic or very good for our nation.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), an appropriator who hails from a border state, pushed back on such characterizations. His discussions with acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, Cuellar said, persuaded him that the administration was not exaggerating the need.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met Tuesday with top House Democratic appropriators. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) said lawmakers are looking over the proposed language to ensure it is “incredibly tight for [Health and Human Services] to make sure that they care for these children, they’re properly placed as expeditiously as possible with a responsible individual or family and that they not languish in these facilities.”
The hang-up over the funding request has also led to some sniping between House and Senate Democrats. Democratic senators were prepared to make a deal on the border request last month, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday, adding: “The House wasn’t for it, but we were.”
Schumer also said “we’re all for” the requested humanitarian aid, but Senate Democrats have objections to some border security provisions requested by the administration.
Five years ago, the Obama administration requested $3.7 billion to address a surge of migrants at the border. But a divided Congress never approved any funding, as Republicans blamed Obama for precipitating the border crisis with his executive actions and frustrated Democrats lashed out at the president for being open to legal changes that would effectively speed up deportation of children from Central America.
The political climate around the issue of immigration has become even more polarized since, rendering the prospects of a deal that addresses the migrant surge even more difficult despite apprehension figures that are substantially higher than in 2014. Last month, more than 144,000 migrants were taken into custody, according to data from Customs and Border Protection. Nearly 69,000 migrants were apprehended in May 2014, the highest one-month total that year.
“Republicans’ desire to support everything that Trump does and Democrats’ desire to oppose everything Trump does creates a vacuum of bipartisanship,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “Unless a member of Congress is politically courageous — slash insane — they’re going to be hard pressed to try to find a deal with the other party.”
Noorani added: “Therefore, Trump is left to his own devices.”
Trump on Tuesday touted his agreement with Mexican officials on controlling the surge of migrants primarily from Central America, although he declined to disclose the details to reporters. A Washington Post photographer captured some wording from a sheet of paper the president claimed was his agreement, which appeared to lay out some details of a joint declaration. It would initially give Mexico 45 days to address the surge of migrants to the U.S. southern border, then if enough progress isn’t made have an additional 45 days to “take all necessary steps under the domestic law” to address the issue.
Vice President Pence also referenced the 90-day timeline in a lunch with Republican senators on Tuesday, according to a GOP official who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door discussion.
GOP senators on Tuesday also stepped up pressure on Democrats to act on the administration’s border package and dismissed their criticism of how Trump is handling the border crisis.
“The inference from that is, if Trump had somehow changed what he’s doing this problem would go away,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “Which, I think, is fundamentally false.”