Border showdown could preview spending battle

Efforts to fund short-term fixes may prove to be politically difficult

Rep. Liz Cheney speaks at a March 11 news conference with other members of the House GOP Caucus on the situation at the southern border. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Liz Cheney speaks at a March 11 news conference with other members of the House GOP Caucus on the situation at the southern border. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 25, 2021 at 6:30am

The growing congressional outcry over the Biden administration’s handling of unaccompanied migrant children at the border could tee up political showdowns over how much money to send to the border and how to spend the funds. 

The increasing numbers of minors arriving at the southern U.S. border without a parent or guardian have presented a challenge for the administration. Most single adults and some families are turned away under a Trump-era public health directive, but unaccompanied children are allowed to enter. 

The Biden administration is expected to release a preview of its fiscal 2022 budget request next week, followed by a full budget submission later this spring. 

Funding to hire more immigration judges and to increase capacity and improve facilities run by Health and Human Services, the department that takes custody of unaccompanied migrant children, would likely be included in any spending bill. 

But efforts to greenlight funding for short-term border solutions, like increasing security, may prove difficult politically.

During the Trump administration, border security funding frequently emerged as one of the most contentious issues in debates over annual government spending, often contributing to delayed passage of appropriations laws. The last Homeland Security spending bill, signed into law in December, provided nearly $1.4 billion for the border wall.

In 2019, a $4.6 billion supplemental spending bill spurred fierce division over enforcement funding between congressional Democrats’ moderate and progressive wings. 

Other strategies, such as aid to Central American nations fueling the high border numbers, may be more acceptable.

“It’s inevitable that there’s going to be some partisan showdown about what we spend on the border and where that money goes,” said Kristie De Peña, vice president for policy and director of immigration at the Niskanen Center, a think tank.

Some Republicans, who squarely blame President Joe Biden’s efforts to reverse asylum restrictions implemented by the Trump administration, may be unwilling to appropriate emergency border funds.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., ranking member of the Homeland Security spending panel, “does not believe we can appropriate our way out of this situation as it stands right now,” her spokesperson said in a statement. 

“The administration has indicated to her that they had the resources they needed. She would prefer that they use the funds that they currently have in regard to continuing work on a border system, to include technology updates and improvements,” the spokesperson said.

Mike Howell, a senior government relations adviser for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it would be political “malpractice” for Republicans to support border funding without securing a Biden administration commitment to reinstate some of former President Donald Trump’s immigration restrictions. 

“Absent the Biden administration doing things that stop the surge that they’ve created, it would be very amateur-hour negotiation tactics by congressional Republicans to give any amount of money to them without significant addressing of the root cause,” said Howell, who previously worked for DHS’ Office of the General Counsel in the Trump administration and as an attorney for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Just how Biden requests funds could also be politically difficult.

House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., said she could imagine an emergency funding request based on what she sees so far.

“Rebuilding our capacity to manage migration will take time and resources, and could require supplemental funding for the Department later this year,” she said in a statement.

Administration officials have avoided calling the situation at the border a “crisis.” Requesting an emergency supplemental as Trump did two years ago could undermine that message. 

But if the administration seeks border money through the annual appropriations process, political sticking points could threaten to derail other unrelated funds. 

Still, Kerri Talbot, deputy director of Immigration Hub and former chief counsel for Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., expressed hope, noting that the passage of appropriations has historically been a bipartisan effort. 

“I could actually see Democrats and Republicans working together on the budget this year,” she said. 

Border security

In the annual spending bills, Republicans want to prioritize border security, particularly after Biden suspended construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and any funding for the project in an executive order signed after his inauguration. 

Last week, dozens of Republican senators suggested in a letter to the Government Accountability Office that Biden violated a 1974 law establishing procedures to prevent executive branch overreach in congressional funding decisions. They argued that Biden’s departure from the hard-line immigration policies of his predecessor provided an incentive for migrants to cross the border illegally. 

Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, is pushing for more border agents and security technology. He also supports funding for a short-term DHS response plan to address fluctuations in border crossings. 

Katko said in a statement he is working on legislation that “reflects what the operators have told members at the border that they need, including 21st-century technology, physical barriers, [Customs and Border Protection] staffing, and access roads, lighting, and cameras.”

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, also wants to focus on border security.

“This is a crisis of tremendous proportions with potentially devastating effects if the Biden administration does not act immediately to strengthen border security,” he said in a statement. “It is critical for our nation that President Biden make funding for Homeland Security a top priority in his FY22 budget request.” 

Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a more moderate Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations panel, agreed that funding is needed on border technology to address “pull factors” such as a perception south of the border that the U.S. has lax immigration laws. But he doesn’t support money for border wall construction, at least in Texas, calling that a “14th-century solution.” 

“We certainly need to make sure that we provide funding for Border Patrol, the technology and equipment they need — everything except for a wall, bottom line,” he said. 

But House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., doesn’t see the need for additional spending at the border. 

“The resources are there — it’s whether or not the timing necessary to implement the resources will allow it to be done ASAP,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t have the money, because we have the money; we don’t have the facilities.”

Thompson said he hopes there won’t be any border wall money in the president’s budget request, saying those funds should be redirected toward facilities to accommodate migrants. 

Foreign aid

Democrats have called for more foreign aid to Central America, a strategy the Biden administration bills as a longer-term solution to curbing migration from the region.

Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Chairman Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who recently visited the border, said it is “abundantly clear that we need to spend more resources addressing the root causes of migration rather than just trying to contain the situation on the back end when these desperate people have reached our border.”

“Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where the bulk of migrants are fleeing from, are not huge countries,” said Murphy, who also serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Economic development and security funding can help stabilize these nations, and are likely a much better investment of U.S. taxpayer funding than a massive wall, more Border Patrol agents, and additional detention centers.”  

Cuellar agreed that aid for Central America, as well as southern Mexico to fortify its shared border with Guatemala, should be prioritized. 

“We’ve got to address the push factors,” he said, referring to economic insecurity and safety concerns that often drive migrants to leave their home countries. 

A foreign aid proposal could also sway Republicans. 

Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, acknowledged such push factors and called for more Central American aid, as well as increased processing of refugee claims. 

But more money for Central America will not spur immediate change on the border, De Peña said. 

“We are not going to change migration patterns in a year, or two years, or even a decade with just that policy alone,” she said.