Senate Appropriators Want $1B for Unaccompanied Illegal Immigrant Children

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.