Rise in child migrants causes budget woes

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Lawmakers are scrambling on multiple fronts to deal with the 92 percent surge in illegal child migrants streaming across the border with Mexico. 

The projected costs and debates associated with the influx are having an impact on both the 2015 budget process and attempts in the House to enact immigration reform.

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The administration recently said that more than 47,000 children were caught crossing the southwestern border without their parents since October of last year.

The near-doubling of the numbers took members of Congress by surprise.

Appropriators have just days to figure out how to help the children, stanch the increase and pay for both efforts.

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Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) is taking the lead on the talks in coordination with the Obama administration, which has set up a new interagency task force. That task force is working with the Defense Department to secure new facilities to house the children.

Deputy White House Budget Director Brian Deese on May 30 surprised the spending panel by asking for an extra $1.4 billion in next year’s budget to deal with the migrants, who are mostly from Central America. 

The $156 billion Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill will be a particular focus of attention.  

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is responsible under the law for housing, feeding and caring for the child migrants after border officials apprehend them. 

The Senate is set to release its version of the bill on Tuesday and lawmakers and staff are racing to craft a solution to the sudden change in on-the-ground conditions.

“It is a big need, a high cost and the number of kids has skyrocketed. We don’t really know what to do or how to handle it,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the subcommittee in charge of the Labor, HHS bill.  

“We have to respond to that humanitarian crisis,” Harkin told The Hill. “We are working on it. I know they asked for $1.4 billion and we are trying to see if we can handle that. As you know, that’s discretionary money.”

“Something has to give,” he added. 

A possible solution could involve reallocating funds from another appropriations measure that has not yet passed the full committee. One potential candidate is the budget for the State Department.

The expenses incurred in funding some programs within State could be shifted into a war-funding account, which is not subject to the $1.014 trillion overall budget cap for this year. 

More likely is a tried and true budget “technique” of using “chimps,” or changes in mandatory spending programs, to free up funds. Some Republicans have derided “chimping” as a gimmick.  

“We have staff looking at the whole thing. Gotta have some money,” Ranking Member Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said. 

Shelby this week voted against a transportation bill that used “mechanisms,” rather than real cuts to programs, to cover a funding shortfall due to reduced Federal Housing Finance Agency revenue. He may push back against moves in the Labor, HHS bill that smack of gimmickry.

The Homeland Security bill, which governs border patrol funding, is also likely to be affected. 

“We want to solve this in a bipartisan manner,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who chairs the homeland security spending panel. “We need a short-term, intermediate and long-term solution, and Sen. Mikulski has been leading the efforts and I’ve been helping her along with several of our Republican colleagues.” 

One outstanding issue is whether to try to deal with the root causes of the influx and, if so, how? The White House blames the rise primarily on adverse economic conditions in Central America. The problems could, at least in theory, be ameliorated by increased foreign aid in the State Department bill. 

But attempts to advance a bold plan could get caught up in the bigger battle over immigration reform that has been simmering since Obama’s push for a comprehensive bill after the 2012 elections. 

Lawmakers disagree about the root cause of the child migrant surge, in any event. Some Republicans allege that lax enforcement of immigration laws by the Obama administration has prompted more and more illegal immigrants to send for their children. 

In 2012, Obama announced that adults brought here as children illegally more than five years ago could apply for a provisional status allowing them to avoid deportation. 

That Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) process is up for renewal, prompting some Republicans to link the DACA process to the surge in child migrants.

“It’s no wonder there’s an astounding and alarming number of minors crossing the border since DACA applications seem to be rubberstamped and lawful status is easily obtained,” Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said this week. 

Harkin denied that Obama policies were prompting the surge.

“From everything I’ve read it’s economics, it’s violence — those two,” Harkin said. “Immigration reform would help solve this.”

Leading Republicans in favor of immigration reform agreed with Harkin’s latter point, though they did not dismiss the idea that incorrect ideas about U.S. immigration enforced could have played some role in the surge.

“There is evidence that unfounded rumors in some countries that if you come as a child to the U.S you can stay have contributed to it,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “Beyond that, I think that it’s illustrative of the need we have in this country to address immigration reform in all of its aspects.”

He said the surge “calls out for a long-term approach in terms of improving our immigration system: both the way the legal immigration system works and addressing those who are here illegally.”

In the House, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) continues to lead a push for floor votes on immigration by the August recess despite little sign GOP leaders are on board with that.

Diaz-Balart argued in a Friday interview that the surge shows a bill is needed right away. 

“The problem is that the border is not going to get secure on its own,” he said. “All these issues that are coming up, all these things are under the current system.

“If you are satisfied with the status quo, leave it exactly as it is,” he added. 

Diaz-Balart said that the chances of an immigration vote are improving but made clear that he is not now whipping a particular bill.

He said his push is being held up by deepening distrust of President Obama in general, and specifically by doubts over whether he would enforce tough new border measures that were part of any immigration compromise.

Trust has been further eroded by lack of congressional notification regarding the swap of Taliban prisoners for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last week, Diaz-Balart said. 

“It is no secret that nobody trusts President Obama,” he insisted.