Progressives Lost Big Time on the Border Emergency Aid Bill

They failed to include even basic safeguards to protect migrant kids.


The House voted 305–102 last week to pass a $4.6 billion border funding bill. In theory, the money will improve conditions in the government's detention camps for migrant kids. But Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) argued that the Trump administration doesn't need more money; it needs to release the kids it's holding. She was right, but she failed to stop the legislation.

The progressive and Hispanic caucuses weren't able to strip $81 million out of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budget. Instead, the bill will direct $788 million to new Border Patrol facilities; $112 million to food, medical care, and other necessities for people in Border Patrol custody; and $866 million to shelters under the jurisdiction of Department of Health and Human Services. This was basically the same bill that previously cleared the Senate, 84–8.

The outcome puts on full display the growing fracture between the progressive and moderate Democratic caucuses. It also represents a considerable loss of face for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, given that she had initially declared the Senate bill a nonstarter. She was forced to back down after Blue Dog Democrats—who did not want to be seen as weak on border security—threatened a revolt against their more progressive colleagues' demands to cut enforcement spending. "In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill," Pelosi wrote in a letter to Democratic lawmakers. "As we pass the Senate bill, we will do so with a battle cry as to how we go forward to protect children in a way that truly honors their dignity and worth."

The bill's opponents did manage to kill President Donald Trump's request for money to build his wall. Since the federal courts last week stopped Trump from declaring a national emergency to divert military funds for the wall, that's a significant setback for him.

But that was the only substantial victory for the bill's opponents.

The progressives fought to prevent the Department of Human Health and Services (HHS) from keeping kids in its detention centers for more than 90 days. The 1997 Flores settlement requires Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—generally the first point of contact for asylum seekers—to release unaccompanied kids from its detention facilities within 20 days to either their parents or other relatives. If these guardians are not immediately available, then the kids are supposed to be handed to HHS. HHS facilities are better than CBP detention camps, which are now so crowded that one doctor declared after the recent visit that they've come to resemble "torture facilities." But HHS, unlike CBP, can detain the kids indefinitely, because Flores does not apply to it.

Progressives wanted to impose a limit on stays in HHS facilities and one version of the bill did just that. But this provision was stripped out of the final legislation. In its stead, Vice President Mike Pence gave Speaker Pelosi a verbal "assurance" over the phone that the administration would voluntarily adhere to that limit. Good luck getting them to stick to that.

The number of migrant kids in CBP and HHS custody is increasing. That's partially due to Trump's zero tolerance policy, which forces these agencies to give ICE information about any relatives who come forward to claim the kids. If these relatives happen to be out of status, ICE can initiate deportation proceedings against them, deterring them from coming forward in the first place. The progressive and Hispanic caucuses wanted to include provisions to prevent such information sharing. Their measures didn't make it in. (Some watered-down substitute language may temper such cooperation somewhat, but immigration advocates aren't sure yet.)

In short, the administration created the migrant kids' sorry conditions, then used their plight to win billions of dollars for agencies with a record of abuse and neglect. It remains to be seen whether this will make a whit of difference in the conditions the kids have been living in.