Amid mounting concern for detained migrant children, U.S. House set to vote on border aid bill

Texas Tribune News

"There is an urgency, at least on my part, to get it out the door as quickly as possible," U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, says of the border aid bill.
“There is an urgency, at least on my part, to get it out the door as quickly as possible,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, says of the border aid bill.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON — As reports of migrant children being held in squalid conditions at federal facilities near the border continue to draw outrage, the status of a $4.5 billion humanitarian aid package in the U.S. House remained in question Tuesday amid divisions in the chamber’s Democratic caucus.

Even so, members anticipated the bill, strongly backed by Democratic leadership, would pass later Tuesday evening as tweaks were being made to get more of the party’s liberal base on board.

Opposition on the Democratic side has been concentrated primarily among members of the House Progressive and Congressional Hispanic caucuses who are concerned that the Trump administration will twist the bill’s intent to put some of the money toward border enforcement rather than migrant aid.

On a Sunday conference call, more than 15 members of the Hispanic Caucus and 30 members of the Progressive Caucus expressed their reservations about supporting the bill, according to The New York Times. And at a tense meeting in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office Monday evening, prominent members of both groups spoke against the bill.

Before the bill reached the House floor for a vote Tuesday evening, a notice from the U.S. House Appropriations Committee revealed that amendments to the bill would add several provisions aimed at funneling allocations directly into humanitarian aid, while also establishing a 90-day limit on the retention of unaccompanied children at detention facilities, requiring higher standards of medical care and hygiene for unaccompanied children and guaranteeing access to translation services and legal support funds for all detained migrants. The new version of the bill will also include an accountability clause that threatens to end contracts with detention centers that fail to meet a certain standard of upkeep.

Democrats find themselves under heightened pressure to expedite border relief funding after inflammatory reports last week about the conditions within migrant detention centers. The Associated Press and other outlets exposed overcrowding, poor hygiene, and a lack of soap, diapers and toothpaste at a detention center in the West Texas town of Clint, citing lawyers who are monitoring conditions there under the terms of the Flores agreement, a 1993 settlement that dictates how children and families should be held in detention. More than a dozen children at the Clint facility were reportedly sick, and some were being quarantined, the AP reported.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat with membership in both the House Progressive and House Hispanic caucuses, was playing a central role in shoring up support for the bill among the Democrats’ left wing.

As the vote on the bill, originally expected earlier Tuesday, was pushed later into the evening, Escobar expressed her exasperation outside of afternoon votes.

“Oh my God! I am all for improving this bill and would never oppose efforts to make improvements, but this is a supplemental appropriations bill,” Escobar said. “It’s not an immigration bill, and there is an urgency, at least on my part, to get it out the door as quickly as possible.”

Escobar and much of the Democratic leadership feel that the funding needs to reach the president’s desk as soon as possible to address dire circumstances at many border detention facilities.

Still, for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership, the bill presents a double bind. Pushing the bill through creates the risk that some of the funds will be used by the Trump administration to further his immigration agenda. But by blocking the bill, Democrats would ensure further delays in addressing the poor detention center conditions at the border and provide Trump with potential fodder to shift the blame toward them.

Any measure that passes the House will need to be reconciled with a version proposed in the Republican-led Senate.

At a press conference Tuesday morning, Escobar acknowledged “legitimate concerns” about how the Trump administration could implement the funding. “We should be cautious. And we should be careful,” she said. “Because we have seen this administration declare a needless emergency, we have seen this administration manipulate agencies for nefarious purposes.”

But Escobar and other proponents of the bill argued that the urgency of the conditions in migrant detention centers left Democrats with no choice but to move the bill forward. Escobar and her colleagues also assured wavering fellow Democrats that the final version of the House’s bill included ample “safeguards” to prevent any unintended use of the funding. Escobar said that the new legislation has “been crafted very carefully” with an eye towards closing loopholes that the Trump administration might use to direct the funding toward enforcement or deportation.

“Those appropriators have guaranteed that this money cannot be transferred,” Escobar said. “So it cannot be used for mass deportations. It cannot be used for an ICE deportation force.”

Escobar also urged the Senate to act quickly with the bill, should the House pass it.

“The sooner that they take up the bill that we pass today and the sooner the president signs that bill, the sooner that that funding will get where it needs to go,” she said.

Abby Livingston contributed to this report.