Congress Funding Impasse Risks Deepening Crisis at Border

Congress stands a good chance of leaving for its August break without providing funds to address the child migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border -- an impasse that would have practical and political effects.

A lack of funds would pinch U.S. operations at the border, government officials say. And lawmakers are worried they’ll get an earful of criticism from constituents back home during their five-week recess.

“We’ll have a lot more crowding and a lot more potential problems just in taking care of these kids properly, and it puts inordinate pressure on releasing them,” said Doris Meissner, director of immigration policy at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security would have to reallocate funds to house and feed the children. Secretary Jeh Johnson has told lawmakers that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will run out of funds in mid-August while Customs and Border Protection will do so in mid-September.

“I’m going to have to dial back all of the things we’ve done to surge resources to deal with this spike unless Congress acts,” Johnson said yesterday at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado.

The 57,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended at the U.S.- Mexico border from Oct. 1 through June 15 are double the total in a similar period a year earlier, according to Customs and Border Protection. Most of the children came from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Congress Stalemate

Congress is deadlocked over President Barack Obama’s emergency request for $3.7 billion to cope with the influx at the border. Senate Democrats offered $2.7 billion while House Republicans proposed $1.5 billion.

A more significant roadblock is Republicans’ insistence on pairing the funds with a provision making it easier to deport Central American children, an approach Democrats reject.

Obama will meet today with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to discuss what the White House has called a humanitarian crisis.

House Republicans are set to hold a private meeting today to gauge support for leaders’ $1.5 billion plan amid opposition from some members to spending any new money. Because of that, Speaker John Boehner may need Democratic support he doesn’t currently have to pass the measure.

Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the “real shame of it all” is that Congress wouldn’t need to approve much money to ease the situation.

Immigration Judges

Obama’s request included $45.4 million for additional immigration judges to increase case processing and $5 million for public diplomacy and information programs in Central American nations through the Department of State.

“Those are the two things that actually could have an impact on the nature of the flow,” Meissner said.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that only $25 million of Obama’s request would be spent in fiscal 2014, which ends Sept. 30. Most of the funds would be spent in fiscal 2015.

Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and former White House budget director, said Obama will “have some flexibility” to move funds around to address the crisis.

“I assume he would use it short term,” Portman said. “Longer term, we need a resolution of this issue on a policy basis.”

In Congress, several Republicans are making the case that the House can’t leave for August without acting. They’re resisting a call from their colleagues arguing that little if anything should be done.

Town Halls

“I don’t want to face town-hall constituents without a Republican answer to some of the questions that reference this border issue,” said Texas Republican Mike Conaway.

Republicans, who earlier this year stalled action on a broader rewrite of immigration law, are trying to woo Hispanic voters after 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote.

Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, said, “The case that I do make is that good policy makes good politics.”

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said Democrats also could pay a political cost for inaction by looking ineffective in a crisis.

A July 8-14 Pew Research Center poll showed that 53 percent of respondents said the U.S. should speed up the process of sending the children home, even if it means deportation for some who are eligible for asylum. Thirty-nine percent said the U.S. should follow current policy even if it takes a long time.

Obama Disapproval

The poll also found that 56 percent disapprove of how Obama is handling the situation.

“It’s just another problem on top of everything that has led to a weariness” among the public, Rothenberg said. “It’s just added to the president’s sense of ineffectiveness.”

Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said his party needs to make a case that the impasse is the Republicans’ fault.

“We have to make them pay a political cost” for inaction, Ellison said. “Instead of Congress being broken, we’ve got to tell the truth that Republicans are broken and obstructionist.”

Republicans want to change a 2008 law intended to protect migrant children from sex trafficking. Republicans propose changing the law to allow Central American children to immediately be voluntarily returned to their home country. Those who don’t voluntarily leave would be given an immigration hearing within a week.

Violence, Poverty

Although Obama earlier expressed his support for such a change, Democrats have united in opposition, arguing that the policy gives children fleeing violence and poverty a chance to make a claim for asylum. They say it shouldn’t be revised without congressional hearings.

Lawmakers yesterday traded recriminations instead of policy options to address the crisis.

Boehner said Obama “flip-flopped” on his approach to the 2008 law by omitting any proposal to change it from his emergency spending request to Congress.

Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, said Boehner “is yet again trying to mask the dysfunction and obstruction of his caucus by blaming the president for his inability to pass legislation.”

In the Senate, lawmakers plan to vote next week on Democrats’ $2.7 billion border proposal. It would fund most of what Obama sought, though only through Dec. 31 instead of providing money through Sept. 30, 2015, as the president requested. The plan wouldn’t change the 2008 law.

Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, in an interview, said he thinks it could take a long time for lawmakers to agree on funding, predicting it may not happen until after the Nov. 4 election in a lame-duck session.

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