WASHINGTON – Senate appropriators are moving toward a $1.03 billion spending increase to address the healthcare and shelter needs of thousands of unaccompanied alien children streaming across the nation’s southern border.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education approved a spending plan this week that includes an attempt to tackle what lawmakers described as “an emergency situation by any definition.”
“Beginning in 2012, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of children fleeing escalating gang and drug violence in Central America, seeking relief in the United States and to reunite with families already living here,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the subcommittee chairman. “This is an urgent humanitarian crisis.”
The 2015 spending proposal includes $1.94 billion for the Unaccompanied Alien Children program, a $1.03 billion increase over the comparable fiscal year 2014 level. In addition, the committee expanded the authority of agencies to transfer funds if current trends continue, providing additional opportunities to increase shelter capacity and offer critical support services for children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services if necessary.
The subcommittee intends to offset the increase by cutting other programs in the $156.7 billion spending package.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who supported the funding increase, said the recent influx of tens of thousands of children entering the country without their parents “has resulted in emergency situations in border states. Federal, state and local officials need increased resources to properly shelter, feed and clothe these children as they work to find solutions to these heartbreaking situations.”
“Providing sufficient funding for child advocates and legal services is essential to ensure children have adequate representation and support as their immigration cases make their way through the judicial process,” she said.
The Obama administration has reported that more than 47,000 children have illegally crossed the southern border unaccompanied by their parents since Oct. 1 — a 92 percent increase over the same period in 2013. More than 33,000 have been apprehended along the Rio Grande during that period.
In May alone, about 9,500 children were taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security and transferred to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services — a more than 300 percent increase over May 2013 and 150 percent more than the total number of children in all of fiscal year 2011. Most are arriving from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Authorities expect as many as 60,000 unaccompanied children will cross the Mexican border illegally by year’s end.
Those apprehended are being warehoused in what generally are considered untenable, unsanitary conditions.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said his office remains vigilant regarding the latest trends and challenges to border security and that he is “closely monitoring” the substantial increase in the numbers of unaccompanied children “who are some of the most vulnerable individuals who interact with our immigration system.”
Johnson said he is particularly focused on the emerging situation in the Rio Grande Valley.
“On Sunday, May 11th, I traveled to McAllen, Texas to view the situation and saw the children there first hand – an overwhelming number of whom were under twelve years old,” Johnson said. “I have taken steps across the department and in coordination with federal partners to immediately address this issue.”
At the direction of President Obama, Johnson said he established an interagency coordination group, led by Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, to ensure that federal agencies are unified in providing relief to the affected children.
Johnson said his agency intends to undertake “longer-term reforms to address the root cause behind these recent migration trends” and will work closely with the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“We must, and we will, address this situation,” Johnson said.
But Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said reports indicate the flow of children crossing the border is overwhelming the agencies responsible for their care. He attributed this latest crisis along the nation’s southern border to the Republican-controlled House’s failure to act on comprehensive immigration reform, asserting that legislation passed last year in the upper chamber would have eased the situation.
“Every day the House fails to act, we realize the human cost of doing nothing to fix our broken immigration system,” Leahy said. “We see the human cost in the gripping photographs of young children, seeking a better life, housed in facilities at the border. The pictures are shocking, and so are the numbers.”
In 2011, according to Leahy, 6,560 unaccompanied children crossed the border. Since then, the numbers have “skyrocketed.”
“Just in the last seven months, nearly 50,000 children have already been apprehended and that number will likely double before the end of 2014,” he said. “President Obama has called this an ‘urgent humanitarian situation.’ I agree.”
But Republicans, like Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, insist that the crisis “is directly the result of President Obama’s own policies and it involves tens of thousands of young children risking their lives.”
Cornyn asserted the administration’s “failure to uphold our immigration laws, indeed, his statement that he essentially will not enforce broad swaths of those laws” has created an dangerous incentive for children and their parents to cross into the United States under “treacherous and horrific circumstances.”
“These children are being preyed on by drug cartels and human traffickers, and they’re at high risk of being kidnapped, raped, or even killed while traveling in this long dangerous journey to the United States,” Cornyn said. “But sadly, when they arrive here, we still have no way of guaranteeing their safety because of lack of an adequate plan to deal with this humanitarian crisis.”
Cornyn was joined in his condemnation by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who said the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border “spiked dramatically” in 2012 after the president implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, memorandum instructing various agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to practice prosecutorial discretion toward some individuals who immigrated illegally to the United States as children.
That action, Cruz said, “unilaterally granted amnesty to some 800,000 people who had been minors,” leading to “a dramatic increase of children being handed over to international drug cartels to be smuggled in here illegally.”
“These numbers represent children,” Cruz said. “Little boys and little girls, their parents are handing them over not to some noble social worker trying to help them. They are handing them over to international, global criminal cartels that smuggle human beings in. They put kids, among other places, on top of fast-moving freight trains. They are criminals who assault, sexually assault, and sometimes murder these children. These are little girls that are sometimes being sold into prostitution and sex slavery.”