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Alone, Illegal and Underage: The Child Migrant Crisis

In the meantime, before appropriators decide how much money to chip in for immediate response needs in fiscal 2015 — and for which accounts — they say they need more data from the Obama administration, which did not ask for additional fiscal 2015 funding to cope with the emergency.

“This is a humanitarian crisis, and we have to go to the edge of our chairs to at least get the estimate for fiscal ’15,” Mikulski told her panel, adding that “our failure to appropriate could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.”

The administration’s fiscal 2015 budget request calls for $868 million — flat funding on par with fiscal 2014 levels — for the HHS unaccompanied minors program. The department places immigrant kids in temporary housing such as foster homes, gives indirect financial support for expenses such as health care and legal services, and seeks permanent homes for them.

Jerry Moran of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees HHS, says the budget request leaves “a major hole” for funding the program. “I assume their assumption is Congress has got to fill in the gap, but they didn’t provide us any tools to do that,” he adds.

In its budget request, the administration stated, “Due to the volatile nature of this program and the ongoing discussions of a long term policy solution, the Administration is not able to reliably predict the number of UAC (unaccompanied alien children) who will arrive in FY 2015 at this time.”

Making assumptions for fiscal 2015 is particularly challenging, the proposal states, because of the significant increase in the number of unaccompanied minors since fiscal 2012. The most accurate forecast for arrivals in fiscal 2015 would be made in fall of this year, the administration said.

“We will continue to closely monitor UAC arrivals and all potential program impacts and keep Congress apprised of changes in caseload projections and potential changes in the UAC population that may alter current budgetary estimates,” the document says.

Mikulski has warned administration officials, though, that she does not want to see a repeat of last year, when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called her to request more money for the program in the fiscal 2014 omnibus. In that legislation, the chairwoman and other appropriations leaders ended up increasing funding for the program by $492 million above fiscal 2013 levels.

“I’ve been saying to the administration: Tell me what you need, and don’t stick us with the bill at the end,” Mikulski told HHS officials. “And I feel that you’re not telling me what you need.”

Mikulski has been discussing the issue with Sebelius and Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed Sebelius at HHS. And Sen. Jeanne Shaheen says several senators brought the issue up during a dinner with Kerry this month.

“Rather than worrying about the silos of where the money comes from, we need to think about what we can do that’s right for the kids,” says Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who sits on the spending subcommittee that appropriates funding for HHS.

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