Sharing info on potential sponsors of unaccompanied children stalled border funding

Sharing info on potential sponsors of unaccompanied children stalled border funding

Originally published by LA Times

WASHINGTON After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said May 16 that she hoped the emerging disaster aid supplemental would also carry funding to care for children and families pouring over the border in record numbers, it seemed like a fait accompli.

But as the days turned into a week, something was clearly wrong. And suddenly, Senate leaders agreed to drop billions of dollars the Trump administration wanted to address what both sides called a humanitarian crisis at the border, in the interest of getting the $19.1 billion disaster aid bill over the finish line.

One key reason for the holdup over border funding, it turns out, was a dispute over language House Democrats sought to prevent the Department of Health and Human Services from sharing information with the Department of Homeland Security on family members or others seeking to sponsor unaccompanied migrant children in custody.

According to staff, Democrats sought language that would specifically bar such information sharing except in cases where HHS has reason to believe the potential sponsor has a history of disqualifying offenses, such as violent crime or human trafficking violations. Exact details of the amendment couldn't be learned last week, but GOP aides characterized the Democrats' position as going a step further than current law, which the two parties negotiated in the fiscal 2019 omnibus spending package.

That provision, which expires Sept. 30 unless renewed, generally prohibits Immigration and Customs Enforcement from detaining or removing sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children if the sponsor is found to be in the U.S. illegally, based on information provided by HHS. There are exceptions to the law for potential sponsors with a felony conviction or pending felony charge related to violent crimes, trafficking in guns or drugs, child abuse, sexual abuse, child pornography or a possible association with human trafficking.

A GOP aide said the additional restrictions Democrats wanted could impact ongoing investigations into human trafficking and other offenses, and possibly endanger the children being released from custody to their potential sponsors' care.

But Democrats have expressed concerns that fear of deportation may prevent some undocumented immigrants from stepping forward to sponsor unaccompanied children, increasing the number of children staying in temporary facilities without adequate care.

"Throughout discussions on a border supplemental, Democrats have been clear that we will not give the Trump administration a blank check," a House Democratic aide said Friday. "In negotiations, we have insisted on provisions that strengthen oversight and protect the dignity and rights of migrants both in DHS and HHS custody."

The concerns stem from a memorandum of agreement entered into last May by HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement, ICE and Customs and Border Protection requiring continuous information sharing from when unaccompanied children are initially detained, to when they are eventually released by the ORR to a sponsor's care.

House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, and Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-California, have been critical of the information-sharing pact, particularly after reports of ICE agents arresting potential sponsors based on their immigration status, even those without prior criminal records.

"There is no doubt that the implementation of this (memorandum) has had a chilling effect on the willingness of sponsors to come forward and will continue to exacerbate ORR's massive backlog," DeLauro and Roybal-Allard wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in October.

Groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Immigrant Justice Center and others have been opposed to the information-sharing deal from the beginning. They have been lobbying Congress to add an expanded rider blocking the use of any information obtained from HHS to detain or remove a potential or current sponsor or family members, without exceptions.

It doesn't appear Democrats are willing to go that far. But both sides agree additional billions of dollars are needed to help ORR deal with a surge of unaccompanied children at the border between $2.9 billion and $4.3 billion, by White House estimates. And the money is needed as soon as next month or HHS says it will have to redirect funds from anti-human trafficking and other priority programs in order to help care for tens of thousands of migrant children.

"We have a humanitarian crisis" at the border, DeLauro said Thursday, after it was clear a border deal wasn't happening. But she stressed the White House had provided "not a single detail" about how the ORR money would be spent.

Meanwhile, the $19.1 billion disaster aid bill is still stuck as well, although the delay is likely temporary. After Senate passage by an 85-8 vote Thursday, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, blocked a unanimous consent request to pass the measure in the House on Friday in part because the White House-backed border money was dropped.

House Democrats will try another UC in a pro forma session Tuesday.

(Camila DeChalus and David Lerman contributed to this report.)

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