A group of kids are seen inside a temporary migrant holding area set up by Customs and Border Protection under the Paso del Norte International Port of Entry between Juarez and El Paso, on March 27, 2019. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amid a raging nationwide debate over the dire conditions of migrant detention centers, the U.S. House and Senate rushed to pass competing bills this week to address an unfolding crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate approved bills with around $4.5 billion aimed at improving conditions in overcrowded migrant detention centers, but the bills allocate their money differently and offer different levels of assurance that the Trump administration puts the appropriations to their intended use.
But with calls to address the humanitarian situation at the border grow louder, the leadership in both chambers are on a collision course as they scramble to address the situation ahead of a weeklong July 4th recess. Here’s a look at how the bills compare:
What’s in the House Bill?
The House passed a $4.5 billion border aid bill Tuesday night on a 230-195 vote. Only three Republicans supported the bill, including one Texan, Will Hurd of Helotes. The funding designations of the House bill are carefully crafted to funnel appropriations towards improving conditions at detention facilities and extending aid and legal services to migrants.
Most of the House’s appropriations—some $2.9 billion—would go to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) toward funding legal services for migrant children who have been detained and relieving overcrowding by creating more licensed facilities to hold migrant children.
And of the remaining $1.5 billion in the House bill, the majority would go to the Department of Homeland Security, whose sprawling network of agencies include U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the eyes of some Democrats – most prominently U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who voted against the bill – sending any more funding to DHS risks helping support ICE’s efforts at deportation.Even though the House bill notably does not allocate any funding for ICE, the agency has developed a reputation for supporting itself through back channels. In recent years DHS has sometimes diverted funding from other areas to ICE, according to Greg Chen, the Director of Government Relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
But the House bill is careful to spell out how DHS is allowed to use the new funding, requiring the agency to ensure it has an adequate supply of necessities like food, water, blankets, soap, toothpaste and diapers. Extreme shortages of such productshas stoked widespread outrage and served as a flashpoint in the national conversation about the situation at the border over the last week.
Still, nearly $800 million of DHS’s funding in the House bill is designated for the expansion of “soft-side and modular facilities”—the overflow shelters often referred to as “tent cities”—an expansion of detention accommodations that critics have argued are inhumane.
Unique to the House bill are $17 million in allocations to the Department of Justice prescribing legal services for children and $20 million to ICE to fund alternatives to physical migrant detention centers. While some Democrats see any financing going to ICE as a non-starter, the language in the bill makes clear the money is aimed at softening enforcement measures. Opting instead for various alternatives to physical detention, Chen said, has proven effective in ensuring that asylum-seekers attend court hearings and keep up with their legal responsibilities, while being “far less expensive than physical custodial detention that the administration has been using as a default practice.”
Several provisions added to the House bill in the hours before it passed were aimed at appeasing hold-out members of the Congressional Hispanic and House Progressive Caucuses. These amendments established even tighter restrictions on the use of humanitarian aid funding and stringent standards on the care and resources provided to detained children including a 90-day limit on the detention of unaccompanied children at influx shelters, demands that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol adopt higher standards of medical care and hygiene for unaccompanied children, and a guarantee of translation services and legal assistance for detainees.
Perhaps the most significant distinction in the House bill are the “guardrails,” as some members have called them – provisions intended to prevent the misappropriation of funds by ICE and the Trump administration. Republicans argue that these restrictions on implementation severely limit the ability for the Trump administration to administer a unilateral response in an emergency situation.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, of Fort Worth, in a statement on behalf of the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, criticized the House bill for including “provisions that tie the hands of the Administration, restricting President Trump’s ability to respond to the humanitarian crisis.”