CHN: Congress Fails to Agree on Funding for Humanitarian Crisis

Members of Congress headed home for a five week recess last Friday without having reached an agreement on an emergency supplemental spending bill that would provide additional funds to deal with the child refugee crisis along the US border.
The Senate narrowly overcame a procedural hurdle in a vote (66-33, 60 votes were needed) last Wednesday on its bill (S. 2648), but Senate Republicans killed the bill in a vote Thursday night (50-44, again 60 votes were needed). The Senate bill would have provided $1.2 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) programs for housing and basic needs and services for the children. The remainder of the $2.7 billion in the bill for the humanitarian crisis would have been used for more border enforcement, to add more judges and legal teams to process cases, to transfer children to more appropriate family settings, and to seek better international solutions. Republican Senators objected to the funds being deemed as emergency spending, meaning offsetting cuts were not required. They also hoped to offer amendments that would have changed a 2008 trafficking law to strip protections available under current law for child refugees from non-contiguous countries, allowing for speedier deportations without properly assessing children’s request for safe haven, and objected when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that no amendments would be allowed.

After the GOP-led House flip-flopped on whether to vote on its drastically scaled-back  border supplemental spending bill (H.R. 5230) last Thursday, they passed (223-189) the bill Friday night after making changes to the legislation to garner additional Republican support. They also passed (216-192)  another bill (H.R. 5272) to end funding for a program known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which defers deportation and provides two-year work visas for certain undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children and have been here since 2007. The House was originally scheduled to vote on the measures on Thursday afternoon, but GOP leaders pulled the legislation after it became clear that they didn’t have enough votes for passage because many right wing Republicans said it didn’t go far enough to crack down on illegal immigrants. It looked like they were set to go home without acting on the issue, but after a Thursday afternoon huddle, it was announced that they would delay the start of their recess (scheduled to begin at the end of the day on Thursday), tweak the bills (including making the anti-DACA language stronger and adding more funding to deploy National Guard troops to the border), and vote on them on Friday.  As passed, H.R. 5230 would provide $405 million for border enforcement and just over a third ($405 million) of what the Senate bill would provide to help HHS cope with providing housing and services for the children in the current fiscal year. The remainder of the $694 million in the bill would go the Justice Department to process more cases, the State Department for repatriation and reintegration activities, and deploying National Guard troops to assist at the border. It also makes the changes to the 2008 trafficking law the Senate Republicans had sought, making it easier to deport the unaccompanied children.

The White House issued a veto threat on H.R. 5230 on Wednesday, saying in a Statement of Administration Policy that it will “undercut due process for vulnerable children which could result in their removal to life threatening situations in foreign countries” and that it “could make the situation worse, not better.” President Obama had previously sent Congress a supplemental spending request for $3.7 billion. Many advocates also opposed the House bill and believed that the Senate bill was a better option because it provided more money for temporary shelter, processing cases, transferring children to more appropriate family settings, providing for their basic needs, and seeking better international solutions. They also felt that the U.S. must not turn its back on children fleeing violence but instead determine fairly whether these refugees meet the legal standards for staying here.  Advocates opposed the policy changes in the House bill that would that deny protections available under current law, and they opposed requiring that other programs be cut in order to meet these emergency needs, which the House bill requires.  They also oppose ending funding for DACA.

According to CQ, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) said Congress may try to add the supplemental funding to a continuing resolution expected in September (see article elsewhere in this issue). Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson previously told Congress that funds to deal with the crisis will start to dry up in mid-August. Without additional funding, the administration may have to do additional shifting of funds within agencies, an act known as reprograming, to cover basic functions for the children. Some shifting has already been done – HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement shifted $94 million from refugee services programs to deal with the border crisis, and $44 million has been shifted from places like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are limits on how much money can be shifted within an appropriation, and it’s unclear how much more can be done in FY 2014.

Following Friday’s activities, President Obama said he may have to “act alone” to fill the gap in resources, signaling that executive action may be pending. The White House also released on Friday a recap of the government’s response to the border crisis so far. House Republican leadership released a statement on Thursday saying that “There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action, to secure our borders and ensure these children are returned swiftly and safely to their countries.” However, advocates point out that this statement seems to be in conflict with previous statements by Republicans in the House that say that the President has overstepped his authority; indeed, the House voted (225-201) on Wednesday to sue President Obama because of his use of executive power.

For more information, see CHN’s July 22 Human Needs Report, as well as several recent articles on our blog, including the “Fact of the Week” showing that Americans want the U.S. to give shelter and support to the child refugees, a new Q&A on the Child Refugee Crisis, and a piece on why Congress needs to act to help children fleeing violence.