Democrats warn GOP would punish needy in overreaching immigration bill

The Republican bill would bar funding for organizations aiding any noncitizen, including those in the country legally, trafficking victims and Afghan refugees.

A 4-year-old Honduran girl carries a doll while walking with her mother from a Catholic Charities relief center to a nearby bus station in McAllen, Texas, in 2018.Loren Elliott / AFP - Getty Images file

Democrats in Congress raised alarms Wednesday over a sweeping GOP border bill that they said goes beyond security's scope and would punish all noncitizens, including legal residents, trafficking victims and refugees.

Republicans say the Border Reinforcement Act of 2023, introduced Monday, seeks to provide the tools needed to respond to the current “border crisis.

Among the concerns is a provision that would bar any nongovernmental organization that provides services to noncitizens from receiving federal funding through the Department of Homeland Security.

"We've heard over and over from the Republicans on the other side that this is just a border security bill and nothing else," Rep. Seth Magaziner, D-R.I., said during the House committee hearing where the bill was being debated. "Now we see, front and center, that that's not true. We see now that this bill goes much further."

"The bill would deny funding to organizations that have nothing to do with border security," he said. "It would deny it to the ones that are offering food, shelter and medical care to people whose lives are at risk."

Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., introduced on Wednesday an amendment to remove that provision from the bill.

The provision as written would defund organizations like Catholic Charities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Episcopal Migration Services, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, he said.

"If Episcopal Migration Services want to help Afghan refugees with housing and transportation to a job, they cannot ever get a grant from DHS,” Garcia said.

If Catholic Charities is giving support and shelter to a woman legally in the U.S. with a U visa, which is set aside for victims of certain crimes, "DHS would be prohibited from ever funding that group," Garcia said.

The Border Reinforcement Act would resume the construction of the border wall; provide retention bonuses to border patrol agents; ensure that 22,000 agents are hired in full-time positions by 2025; and develop and upgrade technology used by Customs and Border Protection. It would also help designate Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and shut down the use of the CBP One app for asylum purposes, among other actions.

Garcia's proposed amendment was rejected in a 15-12 committee vote. Rep. Mark E. Green, R-Tenn., who chairs the committee, said the GOP bill doesn't say these charities can't continue doing their work. But it does say they "aren't going to get taxpayer's dollars."

The Rev. Mark J. Seitz of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops conveyed his opposition to the bill in a letter sent to the committee.

If the provision stays as it is, lawmakers would be jeopardizing funds to assist human trafficking victims and disaster survivors, Seitz says in the letter. "This would be unacceptable if the provision merely barred an NGO from providing services to someone in the U.S. who is undocumented."