House Democrats try to rally progressive support for emergency border bill

The changes would set up a clash with the Senate, which is expected to pass its own version of the bill this week.
Image: Migrants are seen outside the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen
Migrants in a makeshift encampment outside the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in McAllen, Texas, on May 15, 2019.Loren Elliott / Reuters file

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell and Alex Moe

WASHINGTON — In an attempt to shore up support for an emergency funding bill to provide humanitarian aid to the southern border, House Democratic leaders are seeking changes to satisfy concerns among progressive and Hispanic members who don't support or trust the administration's immigration policies.

The changes to the $4.5 billion bill is an attempt to make it more palatable to those who have deep-seated concerns about giving the Trump administration additional funding to hold families in detention. But it also sets up a clash with the Senate, which is expected to pass its own version of the bill this week before Congress leaves town for the July Fourth holiday.

The showdown is taking place in Washington as the conditions for migrants being held at the border continue to worsen. But some Democrats say the onus is on the administration to provide better conditions for migrants — or not to hold families at all.

“I’m not interested in making sure that caged children are getting warmer burritos. I’m interested in making sure that they’re not getting caged in the first place,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said. “We need to stop funding the detention of children under any and all circumstances.”

Ocasio-Cortez has been working to build support against the measure. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., agrees and says that as a Somali immigrant who came to the United States fleeing war, she can’t support an administration she says is mistreating immigrants.

"It's clear this administration does not have a plan on how to deal with this crisis, and we cannot try to help them to get out of this situation without having a comprehensive plan to deal with the humanitarian crisis," Omar said Monday evening, unconvinced by leadership's attempt to gain her support.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent Monday evening speaking with members of the Progressive Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus in her office to explain in detail what's in the bill, which could be voted on Tuesday.

“I said to the members, we have to have a country where every child knows that they are in their parents arms, literally or figuratively,” Pelosi told reporters Tuesday.

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“This isn't an immigration bill," she said. "This is an appropriations bill to meet the needs of our children so we can remove the needs that they have, but also the shame that we should have if they don't have diapers and toothbrushes and care.”

She warned that the Senate version of the bill doesn't provide as many protections for migrants as the House bill, a warning to hesitant members that if they don't support the House bill, they may end up with a measure that provides fewer safeguards for humanitarian treatment - or no bill at all.

“Understand what we’re up against in the White House. The president would love for this bill to go down today," Pelosi hold her members in a closed-door meeting Tuesday, according to a senior Democratic aide. “A vote against this bill is a vote for Donald Trump and his inhumane, outside-the-circle of civilized attitude toward the children.

Some Democrats said they were persuaded to support the emergency aid after speaking with nonprofits and nongovernment organizations, or NGOs, that are caring for migrants on the border and are saying they are running out of money to do so. The House bill includes $60 million for these groups.

“We want to make sure people understand (the bill) and not allow perfection to be the enemy of the good,” Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., who is leaning toward supporting the bill, said.

Even more protections for migrants and congressional oversight will be added to the House bill on Tuesday, including care guidelines for unaccompanied children. The additions will also require the Department of Health and Human Services to notify Congress which requirements are being waived because of an influx of migrants.

Still, the president’s threat to deport immigrants in two weeks without changes to asylum laws has further complicated the effort to pass the bill, multiple lawmakers and aides say.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, whose district includes the border, said there is a legitimate fear among lawmakers that the Congress is going to fund a "dis-functioning system," but said that Congress "cannot wait."

"The urgency of now and today is children sleeping on concrete floors, children's who t-shirts are covered in mucus," she said. "We have to meet our obligation as human beings and fund the needs for the care of these children."

While Pelosi was trying to wrangle enough Democrats to pass the measure, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said Republicans would not support it but indicated they would get behind the Senate bill.

In a statement Monday, the Office of Management and Budget recommended that the president veto the House bill, saying that because it "does not provide adequate funding to meet the current crisis, and because it contains partisan provisions designed to hamstring the administration’s border enforcement efforts, the administration opposes its passage."

Even before the additional protections were added to the bill, House Democratic leaders touted the difference between the House and Senate versions of the emergency aid.

The House bill doesn't include a $61 million pay shortfall at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The House bill also requires that standards outlined in the Flores agreement be met in six months in the migrant influx centers, and twelve months if Congress approves a waiver. The Senate bill gives the Department of Health and Human Services 14 months to comply. The Flores Settlement Agreement of 1993 required that children receive due process and that facilities detaining the children meet certain requirements but the influx centers don't currently have to comply.

The House bill allows members of Congress to visit the sites unannounced while the Senate bill requires two-day notice. The House bill requires the immediate reporting of a death of a child in HHS custody. The House bill also requires that the administration deploy funds and resources to the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) that Congress already allocated.

Julie Tsirkin contributed.