06.12.19

Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Floor Statement On A Border Security Supplemental Appropriations Bill

Next week, the Senate Appropriations Committee will markup a supplemental appropriations bill to address the humanitarian crisis on our southern border.  This does not have to be a partisan process.  We have all seen news reports showing crowded conditions at Customs and Border Protection facilities at our southern border.  We have seen the pictures of women and children sleeping outside, on the ground, because the facilities are full.  And we have all seen the numbers of unaccompanied children in our care swell as kids come across the border looking for help and compassion.   

Most of these are people fleeing violence or dire poverty in their home countries.  Most know how dangerous the trek north will be, but they feel they have no choice.  They feel they have no choice but to take the dangerous trek north.  They fear for their lives.  By the time they reach us, they are exhausted, scared, and hungry.  The vast majority present themselves to Border Patrol agents as soon as they cross into the U.S.  Rather than try to evade law enforcement, they seek U.S. authorities who then escort them through the billion-dollar, useless Trump Wall.  They are looking for mercy.  They are not looking to do us harm.  

While we may disagree about what has led to this crisis and what changes may be needed to our immigration system, I take issue with claims from across the aisle that Democrats oppose any and all solutions to address the crisis. That’s simply false.

We have a responsibility to make sure that the people in our care are treated humanely.  And as Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I take this responsibility seriously. The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that cares for unaccompanied children who cross the border, is running out of money.  They expect to exceed their federal appropriations by the end of this month.  Because they are running out of money, they have already begun to scale back on services that are not critical for life and safety, including education, recreation, and legal services.  We need to take action. 

Customs and Border Protection processing facilities are vastly overcapacity, creating dangerous conditions for the migrants in our care as well as for Border Patrol staff.  We have seen pictures of men, women, and children sleeping outside on Mylar blankets, in temporary shelters under bridges, and in overcrowded conditions inside facilities that cannot accommodate them.  This cannot continue.  We must do better. 

Senate Democrats are willing to provide money to address these problems; we have a responsibility to do so.  But we also have a responsibility to put basic conditions on this money to make sure it is appropriately spent.  We cannot provide a blank check.  Especially to this Administration. 

HHS and DHS facilities must meet appropriate standards so that the care we provide reflects who we are as a nation.  We must not let detainees languish outdoors in 100 degree temperatures for more than 30 days without showering or changing clothes.  Children in our care should only be housed in facilities that meet state licensing requirements.  They should have access to education, recreation, and legal services.  DHS should not be using information on potential sponsors to unaccompanied kids to deport them.  Members of Congress, with oversight responsibility of these agencies, should be able to have access to detention facilities.  Money appropriated for humanitarian assistance should not be used to pay for the wall, which would do nothing to solve these problems.  These should not be controversial propositions.  These are reasonable conditions to include and should garner bipartisan support.

What we will not do, however, is allow this Administration to use this humanitarian crisis to supplement funding for an enforcement agenda that is not only controversial, but also ineffective and cruel.  For example, the President has asked for funding to increase ICE detention facilities by 7,600 beds.  There is no need for this increase in funding and we should not provide it.  The Administration’s inclination at every turn is to use detention above all else to solve our immigration problem.  Not only is this wrong, it is expensive and inefficient. 

Alternatives to detention exist that are safe, effective, and far less expensive.  This Administration needs to use the resources it has for ICE detention services to house those people that truly present a danger to our communities, and not lock up every man, woman, and child, simply for being here without proper documentation.  But the Trump administration has dramatically escalated the arrest and detention of immigrants with no criminal records. It makes no sense – and is an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars.  We carefully negotiated ICE bed levels in the Fiscal Year 2019 Homeland Security Appropriations bill just a few months ago, and there is no reason to revisit it now. 

Congress should also ensure that funding it approved two years ago – overwhelmingly, by both Republicans and Democrats – to deal with the root causes of immigration from Central America, is spent for those purposes.  If we don’t deal with the reasons people are leaving their countries, they will keep coming.  It is just common sense.  That is what those funds are for, the President signed those appropriations bills, and we should insist that they are used for the purposes we intended.  President Trump’s decision to withhold $500 million is self-defeating. 

In addition to being ready, willing, and able to help address the humanitarian issues on the border, Democrats are also advocating for longer term solutions that both parties should support if we are serious about solving this crisis.  Recall that as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I brought a comprehensive immigration bill to the floor six years ago that passed with 68 votes, only to have the Republican Speaker of the House refuse to bring it to a vote in the House.  Yesterday, the Acting Homeland Security Secretary testified that enactment of that bill would have made a difference in the current crisis. 

As we did back then, any immigration reform we consider today must be done on a bipartisan basis.  I know these are controversial matters, but bipartisanship is the only way things get done around here.  Given the urgency of the need on the southern border, I hope that my Republican colleagues will not use this bill as a vehicle to force debate on divisive immigration proposals that should be left to the authorizing committees.  If we turn this into a protracted debate about immigration reform, we will only delay much-needed humanitarian assistance on the southern border.    

As I said at the beginning, consideration of a supplemental appropriations bill to address the humanitarian crisis should not be a partisan issue.  We all want to make sure that we appropriately care for the vulnerable families seeking refuge at our nation’s border.  I urge all members to focus on areas of agreement in this package so that we can get assistance out the door as quickly as possible.

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