The Problem With Asking Congress for Money for the Border

The White House is requesting nearly $4 billion in funds to help solve the unaccompanied-minors crisis at the border. But Congress has a few requests of its own.

Sineage stands on the American side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence during a special 'Mass on the Border' on April 1, 2014 in Nogales, Arizona.
National Journal
Rachel Roubein and Fawn Johnson
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Rachel Roubein Fawn Johnson
July 8, 2014, 7:03 p.m.

Ask­ing for money from Con­gress is dan­ger­ous. Pres­id­ent Obama re­ques­ted $3.7 bil­lion on Tues­day to ad­dress the surge of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors on the Rio Grande bor­der. Now Re­pub­lic­ans have lever­age, and they have a few re­quests of their own.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida wants to re­quire em­ploy­ers to veri­fy elec­tron­ic­ally that new hires are in the coun­try leg­ally and the gov­ern­ment to put in place an elec­tron­ic entry-exit sys­tem at points of entry at the bor­der. He says the bor­der crisis cre­ates an op­por­tun­ity for policy-makers to fi­nally ad­dress broad­er im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment.

House Speak­er John Boehner wants the Na­tion­al Guard to be de­ployed to provide hu­man­it­ari­an as­sist­ance to the chil­dren wait­ing for pro­cessing.

Sen. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona wants “an ex­ped­ited re­turn of the chil­dren back to their coun­try of ori­gin,” which is not in the re­quest Obama sent to Con­gress. “That’s the only way to stop this,” he told re­port­ers.

By seek­ing a hefty amount of money to ad­dress a grow­ing prob­lem at the bor­der, Obama has opened him­self up to a hefty dose of GOP cri­ti­cism for the ways in which his ad­min­is­tra­tion has handled the bor­der up to now. He might not get any­thing out of it in the end, and the ne­go­ti­ations could drag on for weeks.

Con­gress will only be in ses­sion un­til the end of Ju­ly, and there is little chance of his re­quest be­ing ap­proved be­fore then. Dur­ing Au­gust, mem­bers will be trav­el­ing to their dis­tricts in cam­paign mode. By the time they re­turn in Septem­ber, the fisc­al year will be al­most over, and the midterm elec­tions will be loom­ing. The end of Septem­ber will also prompt a fa­mil­i­ar fight about what to do about ex­pir­ing gov­ern­ment fund­ing to avoid a gov­ern­ment shut­down.

A pro­longed con­ver­sa­tion about a bor­der crisis — par­tic­u­larly one where the causes are a mat­ter of de­bate and polit­ic­al mud-throw­ing — isn’t the ideal way to ap­proach the elec­tion. Nor is it help­ful in resolv­ing the reg­u­lar ne­go­ti­ations over ex­tend­ing gov­ern­ment spend­ing un­til law­makers agree on next year’s levels.

Law­makers said Tues­day that the re­quest for emer­gency funds will be sub­jec­ted to a reg­u­lar ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess in both the House and the Sen­ate. That takes time even when the re­la­tion­ship between the White House and Con­gress is func­tion­ing. Adding to the com­plic­a­tions, the dis­cus­sions must start in the House, where Re­pub­lic­ans are du­bi­ous (to say the least) of the pres­id­ent’s motives.

“They’re so screwed up over there. I don’t think they know what they’re think­ing,” said Rep. Buck McK­eon of Cali­for­nia, the chair­man of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. He and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans are up­set that the White House tele­graphed for al­most a week through the press that the re­quest would be $2 bil­lion. Now it’s al­most double that fig­ure, and it in­cludes money for wild­fires that no one was ex­pect­ing.

Still, they ac­know­ledge that it is not in the­ory a bad idea to pass fund­ing to help pro­cess the chil­dren on the bor­der. Does it need to be well over $3 bil­lion? “He in­ven­ted [the num­ber],” Rep. Dar­rell Issa, R-Cal­if., said of Obama. “But we do need the money so we can in­car­cer­ate people so it’s not ‘catch and re­lease.’ Yes.”

Issa’s com­plaint is the most com­mon of Re­pub­lic­ans in both the House and the Sen­ate, who say they don’t want to ap­prove more money that will simply al­low the Bor­der Patrol to re­lease chil­dren in­to the cus­tody of fam­ily or guard­i­ans in­side the United States (some of them un­doc­u­mented them­selves), who will then melt in­to the land­scape.

“Noth­ing will stop the flow like see­ing a plane come back with kids. People that real­ize they just spent five to sev­en thou­sand dol­lars to send people to the bor­der, and now they’re back,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ar­iz.

House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers, R-Ky., is call­ing for a “close and thor­ough look” at the White House’s fund­ing re­quest.

The money, if net­ted, will go to­ward tak­ing an “ag­gress­ive ap­proach on both sides of the bor­der,” ac­cord­ing to a White House of­fi­cial. 

The ex­tra money would speed up the re­mov­al pro­cess of chil­dren who don’t have a le­git­im­ate asylum claim, pro­sec­ute the crim­in­al net­works that are smug­gling chil­dren across the bor­der, and provide some $300 mil­lion in aid to Cent­ral Amer­ic­an coun­tries to identi­fy and as­sist the chil­dren who are at the most risk of gang or drug vi­ol­ence. It is a mul­ti­pronged ap­proach that would send fund­ing to the vari­ous de­part­ments, such as Home­land Se­cur­ity, Justice, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, and State, as well as to oth­er in­ter­na­tion­al pro­grams.

There is no set date for a House com­mit­tee hear­ing, but the re­quest will have its first hear­ing on Thursday in the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee in the Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Sen­ate.

Issa said the House would take its time de­lib­er­at­ing the re­quest be­cause it wants more than just “babysit­ting” for the un­ac­com­pan­ied minors on the bor­der.

Rep. Pete Ses­sions of Texas best summed up Re­pub­lic­ans’ views on Obama’s re­quest. “To simply throw money at a prob­lem and a prob­lem con­tin­ues, that’s a bad an­swer,” he said.

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