Top Obama administration officials warned Thursday that if Congress fails to pass President Barack Obama’s $3.7 billion border bill, the government will have to take money away from other border security priorities to deal with the flood of illegal immigrants into Texas.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell testified at the Senate Appropriations Committee, where she was asked what would happen if Congress doesn’t approve Obama’s request. Burwell said if the flood of roughly 250 kids a day continues, HHS will run out of beds for these kids.
“In August, if we continue on the May-June trajectory, the ability for HHS to bring on beds so that we no longer have more coming in than I can process at HHS and our teams can on a daily basis, they will be backed up at the border,” Burwell testified.
That prompted Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) to ask what that would mean for the border. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said DHS is starting to run out of money due to increased transportation costs, overtime and other costs associated with dealing with the immigration crisis.
He also said DHS would need to build more detention space for children if they cannot be taken by HHS, and said both Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will soon run out of funding for these activities.
“At the current burn rate, ICE is going to run out of money in mid-August, and we project that CBP is going to run out of money in mid-September,” Johnson said. “If there is no supplemental, we’re going to have to go to some dramatic, harsh form of reprogramming… away from some vital homeland security programs that I’m sure members of this committee care a lot about.”
Mikulski indicated at the hearing that she supports the need for Obama’s emergency supplemental spending bill.
“I agree with the president, and I believe that this situation is an emergency,” she said.
But Republicans at the hearing were much more skeptical about the bill, and said it’s not clear that spending more money on detention space and bed space would actually deter more illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States.
“While the president is seeking billions for the admission, detention and care of illegal children and adults, only $45.4 million is requested for the Department of Justice’s adjudication and immigration proceedings,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
“This fact is very troubling to me,” he added. “I personally have no confidence that pouring billions of dollars into our current immigration system will solve the crisis.”
Officials testified that roughly 250 unaccompanied children are entering the U.S. each day. While many have expected up to 90,000 unaccompanied children could cross the border in the current fiscal year, the administration has put out estimates of just 60,000.
But with the number at more than 57,000, Johnson admitted in his written testimony that 90,000 is possible. “We are preparing for a scenario in which the number of unaccompanied children apprehended at the border could reach up to 90,000 by the end of fiscal year 2014,” he said.
Republicans have argued that the current process of releasing these children as they await a deportation hearing is not an effective way to deal with the flood, and said it’s only encouraging more to come.
Juan Osuna, director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review at the Department of Justice, admitted that 46 percent of illegal immigrants don’t show up for their hearing date. But he added that no-shows can face immediate deportation.
“I should note that there are significant consequences for somebody who gets notice of a hearing before an immigration judge and doesn’t show up,” he said. “That immigration judge then has to issue an order of removal… that is enforceable.”
But Republicans were still skeptical, and noted that roughly one in ten illegal immigrants who enter the country this year will be deported. The GOP says that gives immigrants the sense that the odds are in their favor that they can stay in the country.
“We need an extraordinary response,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “The quickest way to deal with it, and to send a message back to those three countries, is [to say] those children are coming home.”
Some Republicans, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R ) have said the National Guard should be deployed to the border. But DHS Secretary Johnson said he that option doesn’t make as much sense because most immigrants crossing through Texas are looking to be captured, and are not avoiding U.S. officials.
Some Republicans said the Obama administration needs to tell Congress precisely what legal changes are needed to deport Central American children more quickly. Current law says DHS cannot immediately turn away these children at the border as it does with Mexican immigrants, and Johnson said he would like to have the flexibility to treat Central American immigrants the same way.
“I do believe that some type of added discretion on my part would be helpful to address this particular situation,” Johnson said. “And so, right now, what we have in mind is treating unaccompanied migrants from the three Central American countries… as being from contiguous countries.”