Texas Tribune News
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amid a raging nationwide debate over the dire conditions of migrant detention centers, the U.S. House and Senate rushed to pass competing bills this week to address an unfolding crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate approved bills with about $4.5 billion aimed at improving conditions in overcrowded migrant detention centers, but the bills allocate their money differently and offer different levels of assurance that the Trump administration puts the appropriations to their intended use.
But as calls to address the humanitarian situation at the border grow louder, leaders in both chambers are on a collision course as they scramble to address the situation ahead of a weeklong July 4 recess. Here’s a look at how the bills compare.
What’s in the House bill?
The House passed a $4.5 billion border aid bill Tuesday night on a 230-195 vote. Only three Republicans supported the bill, including one Texan, Will Hurd of Helotes. The funding designations of the House bill are carefully crafted to funnel appropriations towards improving conditions at detention facilities and extending aid and legal services to migrants.
Most of the House’s appropriations—some $2.9 billion—would go to the Department of Health and Human Services toward funding legal services for migrant children who have been detained and relieving overcrowding by creating more licensed facilities to hold migrant children.
And of the remaining $1.5 billion in the House bill, the majority would go to the Department of Homeland Security, whose sprawling network of agencies includes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the eyes of some Democrats – most prominently U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who voted against the bill – sending any more funding to DHS risks helping support ICE’s efforts at deportation. Although the House bill notably does not allocate any funding for ICE, the agency has developed a reputation for supporting itself through back channels. In recent years, DHS has sometimes diverted funding from other areas to ICE, according to Greg Chen, the director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
But the House bill is careful to spell out how DHS is allowed to use the new funding, requiring the agency to ensure it has an adequate supply of necessities like food, water, blankets, soap, toothpaste and diapers. Extreme shortages of such products have stoked widespread outrage and served as a flashpoint in the national conversation about the situation at the border over the last week.
Still, nearly $800 million of DHS funding in the House bill is designated for the expansion of “soft-side and modular facilities” — the overflow shelters often referred to as “tent cities” — an expansion of detention accommodations that critics have argued are inhumane.
Unique to the House bill is $17 million in allocations to the Department of Justice prescribing legal services for children and $20 million to ICE to fund alternatives to physical migrant detention centers. While some Democrats see any financing going to ICE as a nonstarter, the language in the bill makes clear the money is aimed at softening enforcement measures. Opting instead for various alternatives to physical detention, Chen said, has proven effective in ensuring that asylum seekers attend court hearings and keep up with their legal responsibilities while being “far less expensive than physical custodial detention that the administration has been using as a default practice.”
Several provisions added to the House bill in the hours before it passed were aimed at appeasing holdout members of the Congressional Hispanic and House Progressive caucuses. These amendments established even tighter restrictions on the use of humanitarian aid funding and stringent standards on the care and resources provided to detained children, including a 90-day limit on the detention of unaccompanied children at influx shelters, demands that U.S. Customs and Border Protection adopt higher standards of medical care and hygiene for unaccompanied children, and a guarantee of translation services and legal assistance for detainees.
Perhaps the most significant distinction in the House bill are the “guardrails,” as some members have called them — provisions intended to prevent the misappropriation of funds by ICE and the Trump administration. Republicans argue that these restrictions on implementation severely limit the ability for the Trump administration to administer a unilateral response in an emergency situation.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, in a statement on behalf of the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, criticized the House bill for including “provisions that tie the hands of the Administration, restricting President Trump’s ability to respond to the humanitarian crisis.”
The American Immigration Lawyers Association and other organizations, however, argue that those guardrails are necessary.
“The measures the House bill includes to restrict the use of the funds by the agencies only to the purposes specified in the bill are critical given the historic practice by ICE of redirecting to increase the detention of migrants that Congress has not approved,” said Chen.
Ur Jaddou, the director of DHS Watch and a spokesperson with America’s Voice, a left-of-center immigrant rights group, said that the new Democratic bill, taken at face value, has the necessary precautions to ensure the correct implementation of the funds. Still, Jaddou emphasized, there remains the possibility that the Trump administration would not play by the rules.
“This administration doesn’t necessarily listen to requirements imposed upon them,” Jaddou said. Even with the White House under direct instructions from Congress, he said, “the question will be, do they listen?”
What’s in the Senate Bill?
Like its companion in the House, the Senate bill would push billions toward alleviating the pressures on detention centers and providing emergency humanitarian aid to migrant children. The total appropriations between the two bills are similar—$4.5 billion in the House to the Senate’s $4.6 billion — but the Senate bill comes with far fewer restrictions on the implementation of its funds.
The language in the Senate bill is the product of a fairly robust bipartisan effort, and it passed by a resounding 88-4 margin with the support of the chamber’s two Texans — Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
Like the House bill, the vast majority of the Senate’s legislation is aimed at alleviating the squalid conditions detained migrant children are facing. The Senate would send $2.9 billion to restore the waning resources of HHS.
The majority of the remaining funding — some $1.3 billion — would go to Homeland Security. The bulk of this appropriation is designated for Customs and Border Patrol to improve the conditions in border facilities, expand medical care, and provide better access to essential items like clothing, hygiene products and baby formula. According to The New York Times, these improvements would not include more beds at detention facilities.
Among the provisions in the Senate bill that have met resistance in the House is $145 million allocated to the Department of Defense to fund military expenses along the border, including facility maintenance, medical assistance, and surveillance and enforcement operations. Democrats have sought to keep the Pentagon out of any border aid efforts.
Also drawing pushback on the House side are appropriations in the Senate bill for enforcement, including more than $200 million in funding for ICE and $110 million in overtime funding for Customs and Border Protection employees.
The biggest differences
The two chambers are furthest apart on how much leeway to give the Trump administration with this new funding. The House bill’s so-called guardrails are aimed at preventing the White House from redirecting appropriations away from humanitarian aid and toward immigration enforcement programs.
According to U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, who emerged as a lead proponent for the bill in the chamber, the most important of these safeguards was a prohibition on the use of funds for anything other than their designated purpose.
“We cannot give a president like this a blank check. It just would be disastrous,” Escobar told the Tribune on Wednesday. “We’ve seen him use funding in order to foment chaos and, really, to implement cruelty.”
The House bill is also far more specific in how some of the funds — especially those going to DHS — can be spent, down to granular notes about what should be spent on toiletries.
And the House bill also makes it easier for lawmakers to check on the detention facilities. The Senate bill says that members of Congress may visit detention facilities with two days advanced notice, while the House bill would let them show up at detention facilities unannounced.
Despite Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s outright rejection of the Senate bill, the House bill stands even less chance of becoming law unchanged. Trump has already said that he would veto the House bill if it came before his desk. Still, some watching the situation at the border closely remain concerned at how the Trump administration would make use of the funding if the Senate bill were to become law.
“The Senate [bill] is more at risk of funds being improperly used by ICE and CBP for enforcement that was not designated by Congress,” Chen said.