As Senate Approves Border Spending Bill, California Lawmakers Fight for More Safeguards

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Migrants, mostly from Central America, wait to board a van that will take them to a processing center, on May 16, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)

With an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 84-8, the U.S. Senate Wednesday passed a $4.6 billion emergency funding bill to handle a surge in migrants arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border. The vote came the day after the House of Representatives approved its own legislation that includes more safeguards to protect vulnerable children and families.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed for swift negotiations to reconcile the two bills, even as White House advisers recommended President Trump veto the House bill, arguing the measure would curtail the administration’s border security efforts.

"The Senate has a good bill. Our bill is much better," Pelosi told her Democratic colleagues earlier in the week. On Wednesday, Pelosi told The Associated Press she had a "good conversation" with Trump and that "I don’t know if the president is even going to be signing the Senate bill."

Approval of the House bill, by a 230-195 vote, mostly along party lines, came late Tuesday evening after Hispanic and liberal Democrats, appalled by the treatment of migrants at the border, succeeded in pushing for last-minute amendments aimed at improving in-custody conditions.

Those provisions limit the time that most unaccompanied minors can be held at unlicensed facilities to three months, and call for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to create more stringent standards to “protect the health and safety” of detained migrants.

But conflicted lawmakers who voted for the funding to ease overcrowded border facilities said it didn’t go far enough, in part because CBP already has standards that are often not met.

At the Border

"It's absolutely a dysfunctional system. It is contrary to our moral character as a nation," said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert), a Harvard-trained physician. "It's the way that children and women are treated inhumanely like animals. And there is no accountability."

Ruiz recently introduced a separate bill this month that would require CBP to conduct health screenings of all detainees, provide them access to private toilets and nutritious food, and get rid of freezing cold holding rooms known as "hieleras."

"We have a whole lot more to do to meet the humanitarian needs of children and families under CBP custody," said Ruiz.

CBP arrested nearly 144,300 migrants at the southern border in May alone, more than any other month in the last five years. While male adults from Mexico represented most of the apprehensions in the 1980s and 1990s, now most of those arrested are Central American families and children who say they are fleeing crushing violence, impunity and poverty in their home countries.


CBP officials say they are under-resourced and under-equipped to cope with the influx of families and children apprehended without a parent or legal guardian.

"We completely agree with some of the reporting that has gone out that (unaccompanied minors) should not be held in our custody," said a CBP official during a call with reporters. "We do not want them in our custody, our facilities were not designed for that."

As House lawmakers debated the emergency spending bill Tuesday, CBP acting head John Sanders submitted his resignation, amid the latest controversy over the treatment of children in custody.

A group of independent monitors who visited a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, near El Paso, last week reported children were filthy, sick with the flu and held in overcrowded rooms for weeks, without much time outdoors or proper adult supervision.

"Border Patrol has these rules that they are not supposed to be touching the children. And so they don’t touch them, they don’t help them, they don’t care for them," said Bill Hing, a law professor with the University of San Francisco who interviewed kids at the facility, most of whom had been separated from aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings at the border.

One girl was just 2 years old, he said.

"She was on her own, and only because there was a nice 16-year-old girl that took care of her that she has somebody to comfort her," said Hing. "It was unbelievable."

By law, unaccompanied minors are supposed to be transferred out of CBP custody within 72 hours to specialized shelters meant to care for unaccompanied minors. But Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said shelter space is "at capacity."

Hing said while it was clear the government should fund more space to hold migrants, he doesn’t believe the Trump administration should detain and separate relatives traveling together, as data shows the vast majority show up for court asylum hearings even when not detained.

Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) echoed Hing’s concern, faulting the Trump administration for taking children from adult relatives because they were not parents or legal guardians.

"The President is purposefully making this situation worse by refusing to place these children with known family members while their cases are reviewed," Brownley said in a statement Wednesday, "and by cutting foreign assistance programs in Central America — a decision that is intended to make matters even worse."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.