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Democrats, Republicans struggle to compromise on border, immigration funds

Greg Nash

The government funding bill sent to President Biden late Thursday night modestly raises funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) while seeking to exert limitations on the agencies managing U.S. immigration policy. 

The roughly $182 billion bill does not rescind $2 billion in border wall funding — a messaging victory for Republicans even though the Biden administration has refused to build the wall. It’s a detail that irked progressives, along with the legislation’s funding for significant detention capacity within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

The bill includes some Democratic priorities, continuing reporting requirements on various immigration agencies and ensuring lawmaker access to detention facilities. It also includes funding to address significant backlogs that accrued during the pandemic.

It undercuts the Biden administration as it seeks to ramp up hearing facilities at the border after being forced by court order to reimplement the Trump-era Remain in Mexico policy. Talking points from the Appropriations Committee state it won’t allow funding to “support the illegal and inhumane” program.

The legislation also codifies a July memo issued this summer that bars using restraints on pregnant women in detention except under extraordinary circumstances.

But in many senses the bill is viewed as a compromise, with Democrats unable to get Republicans to abandon certain priorities like former President Trump’s partially-built wall.

“It’ll continue to be what it is now, right? It’s an unspent balance and it will continue to be an unspent balance,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told The Hill.

“Biden’s been clear he’s not building any new border wall. So, you know, I think some of that money will be likely used to make safe some of the projects that were suspended … some of the projects were literally stopped [with a] beam sticking out, with holes in mountain sides.”

“This budget doesn’t, doesn’t do everything I want to move away from the Trump years, but it is clearly a pivot from inhumane policy to much more humane policy,” he added.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said the funding would be used for the “wall or gates, other security, roads, physical access, wall repair, all of the above.”

“Well, we just said, you know, that was the will of Congress. And that was an area that we fought hard to keep from having the money rescinded. So you know, it’s all about compromise,” she said. 

Immigration restrictionists celebrated that the bill includes funding increases for ICE and Customs and Border Protection, but worried that the Biden administration will not use those funds to implement the Trump-style strict enforcement measures they favor.

“The bad news is that there are no mechanisms in the spending package that will compel the Biden administration to spend the money as intended,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

The bill does not include the Afghan Adjustment Act, a measure many were hoping to add to the omnibus as a way to secure a pathway to citizenship for the more than 70,000 Afghan evacuees brought to the U.S. and who remain here under a tenuous temporary status.

It also does not include funding for any additional immigration enforcement personnel. It does include $458 million for various alternatives to detention programs, but also provides funding for some 34,000 ICE beds — well over the 22,000 currently in use.

“The budget gives ICE money to fund over 5,000 more beds than proposed in funding bills introduced last year in both the House and Senate. These funding levels directly contradict commitments made by the Biden administration and members of Congress to reduce the immigration detention system,” Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, said in a release.

The legislation also excludes provisions previously included in earlier funding bills, including a visa recapture provision that would have reclaimed otherwise expired green cards, allowing them to be applied to the lengthy backlog of those waiting to come to the U.S. 

“Congress had a great opportunity to implement some very meaningful and incremental changes to the immigration system this year that are just squandered in this bill,” Jorge Loweree, policy director with the American Immigration Council, told The Hill.

“Congress had an opportunity to create a new pilot program to provide attorneys to people that are navigating our very complicated immigration system. But again, chose to strip that language,” Loweree said, pointing to an earlier bill that would have given the Justice Department $50 million to offer legal services in an immigration court system that does not provide legal aid.

Democrats have been quick to defend the overall budget as being in line with their priorities.

Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chair Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) pushed back on the idea that any increase in DHS funding would be contrary to Democrats’ immigration promises on the campaign trail.

“It’s not just funding, it’s policy changes we’re still working on as far as modernizing the immigration system. I’m encouraged by the significant funding for the humanitarian assistance that we need,” he said.

But Padilla acknowledged the political realities of a must-pass bill when asked about wall funding before Senate passage of the bill.

“It’s a 50-50 Senate and we gotta get it through,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), the chair of the subcommittee overseeing the DHS bill, said she sees significant victories for “the way we treat immigrants seeking a better life.”

“I also fought to provide more funding for [U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s]  body-worn camera program, establish an ICE body-worn camera initiative, and increased funding for ICE’s and CBP’s Offices of Professional Responsibility, the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and the Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman to help ensure federal agency accountability for the migrants in DHS custody. The bill also provides the authority to reorganize the Chief Medical Officer at DHS and increases funding for child welfare professionals and electronic health records so DHS can better respond to the needs of migrants coming to our border,” she said.

Tags Alex Padilla Appropriations border security Chris Murphy Donald Trump Immigration Joe Biden Lucille Roybal-Allard Shelley Moore Capito

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