President Obama's new border spending request will pay for schooling, health care and lawyers for the unaccompanied illegal immigrant children surging across the border, officials told Congress on Thursday as they pleaded for quick action on the $3.7 billion package.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Congress must approve the money this month, saying that if nothing is done before lawmakers leave for a monthlong August vacation, one of his agencies will have to cut its other immigration enforcement in order to hold and transport the children.
But Mr. Johnson and other officials faced bipartisan complaints that Mr. Obama's plan is "incomplete." Democrats said it fails to compensate local communities who are having to face the problem, while Republicans said Mr. Obama needs to spell out details of how he wants to change the law to make sure the children can be quickly deported.
"He needs to work with us to get the right policy into effect — not just throw money at the problem," Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the Senate, said on the chamber floor.
The Obama administration has been struggling for months to gain a handle on the surge of children and families crossing the border, and the president this week finally submitted an emergency spending request to Congress.
It would provide more money to social workers to house the children, add immigration judges to try to speed up cases so that those who are going to be deported can be sent home sooner and boost funding for immigration agents who are handling the surge at the border as well as detaining, processing and transporting the children.
Some of the $1.8 billion intended for the Health and Human Services Department will provide for education and extraordinary health care for children in desperate need, and both the HHS money and funding for the Justice Department will go to pay for legal representation for the children, officials told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In sending the budget request to Congress, Mr. Obama said the pressure is now on Capitol Hill to solve the problem.
But he may not have anticipated the flood of ideas lawmakers said they want to see attached to the funding request.
Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, said all the children should be put through criminal background checks with their home country embassies in order to make sure they don't pose a threat.
Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, two Arizona Republicans who helped write the Senate's immigration legalization bill last year, said they'll introduce legislation they say will get tough on the latest surge.
Their proposal would allow for quick deportation of all illegal immigrants caught at the border, under a program known as "expedited removal."
It also would require mandatory detention or alternatives such as ankle monitoring bracelets for those awaiting deportation hearings to make sure they show up. It would also increase the number of refugee visas available to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala so that people truly fleeing horrendous conditions can apply from home rather than braving the dangerous journey and applying for asylum after they reach the U.S.
The point, the lawmakers said, was to send a signal that those trying to cross will not be able to gain a foothold along with the other 11 million illegal immigrants already here.
"This crisis will continue until the parents who paid thousands of dollars to smuggle their children north to the United States see planeloads of them landing back at home — their money wasted," Mr. McCain said.
Obama administration officials, who have for the most part blamed conditions on the ground in Central America for the surge, did concede that smugglers, known as coyotes, have been able to convince parents that their children can gain that foothold — mainly because the U.S. immigration system is so backlogged that children and families can disappear into the shadows for years.
The key, administration officials said, is to speed up deportations so the smugglers can't sell that claim anymore.
"What we want to do is make the coyotes' promise that [the families] are living off of not correct," said HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell.
But some immigrant-rights groups and a handful of Democrats in Congress have objected, saying that's a terrible way to treat children who may be fleeing unimaginable dangers back home.
"You know what my ears are hearing? Round 'em up and ship 'em back," said a disgusted Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat. "It sounds like we're dealing with cattle or some kind of livestock."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the children end up facing a complex legal system here, and he said the money included for lawyers — about $15 million from the Justice Department — would only provide representation for about 10,000 of the 90,000 unaccompanied children expected to be caught along the border this fiscal year.
Ms. Burwell said her department has some additional money for extra representation but said it's not enough to cover everyone they encounter.
"You are right that we do not have the resources to provide counsel for all the children that pass through and go to sponsors. But there [is] a group that we do that for," she said.
Of the $1.8 billion that HHS is requesting, Ms. Burwell said 84 percent of that is to pay for housing the children, 2 percent is for administrative costs, and 12 percent is for other care expenses such as legal representation and health screenings.
She said it can cost between $250 and $1,000 for each bed space to house one of the children. She said nonprofit organizations are paid to provide the education and other services at those locations.
The surge of children has overshadowed the rest of the immigration debate in Congress. Some lawmakers have said passing the Senate's legalization bill could help combat the surge, but others say the bill is partly to blame, saying its promise of legal status has enticed a new wave of illegal immigrants.
On Thursday, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who had been working on a House version of the legalization legislation, said he'd been officially told by GOP leaders that his bill won't be brought up for a vote this year.
Mr. Diaz-Balart said he believed he had the backing of a majority of House Republicans and enough House Democrats to get his bill passed and blasted his party leaders for refusing to take action.
"It is highly irresponsible not to deal with the issue," he said. "By blocking reform, whether it was when Nancy Pelosi was speaker or now, we are in effect abdicating our duty."
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