WASHINGTON — The government will run out of money within weeks to care for thousands of unaccompanied minors caught crossing the southern border unless Congress can make a deal, but negotiations are hung up on Homeland Security issues.
The Department of Health and Human Services has told Congress it is quickly running out of money to continue caring for undocumented minors who have no parents or guardians to look after them. HHS had 12,600 such minors in government facilities as of April.
Funding for these facilities will run out “sometime this month” unless Congress appropriates more money, said Sen. Roy Blunt, chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that deals with HHS.
“At some point very quickly we’ll be basically be asking the contractors, groups like Lutheran Family Services and Catholic Family Services, to just do this for free and at some point in the future we’ll pay you,” said Blunt. “That obviously doesn’t work.”
While both Democrats and Republicans agree they are staring down the barrel of a crisis if funding is not secured, negotiations involve one of the thorniest political issues: border security. Talks are ongoing, but so far no deal has been reached.
While adults caught crossing the border can be released with orders to appear for a court date, unaccompanied children go through a different process if no parent or legal guardian can be found. After being apprehended by Homeland Security, the minors, some of whom are age 12 or younger, are handed over to HHS to be cared for through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Often the supervision is contracted out to third parties.
A proposal from Senate Republicans would put $4.5 billion toward it — with $3.3 billion going to HHS to provide shelter, food, and medicine to minors, and the rest to Homeland Security.
In the past, President Trump has insisted that funding to build a border wall be included in spending packages, which has sparked fierce resistance from Democrats. But this time, Republicans insist the bill contain no border wall spending. Blunt said the funds will instead go toward expenses like employee overtime.
The main sticking points, according to a Democratic Senate aide, is that Democrats are pushing for stricter limits and guidelines for how the money can be spent and how unaccompanied children can be treated while in custody. Republicans have characterized the disagreement as Democrats being skittish over the politics of providing money for Homeland Security at the southern border.
A meeting between Senate and White House staff to discuss a spending package was planned for Tuesday but postponed until Wednesday afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the plan is to have the Appropriations Committee mark up the bill next Thursday, after which it would need to be passed by both the Senate and the House and signed into law by Trump.
That timeline would clear funds to be released before the end of the month, but a deal still needs to be reached first. “There are some things that are not acceptable but some things that we don’t love but we could accept,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said of the current proposal.
The White House warned Congress in mid-May that it was running out of funds and would be forced to repurpose refugee funding “not necessary for the safety of human life, protection of property, or the immediate welfare of individuals” just to maintain basic care. The White House blamed the shortfall on “the unforeseeable and dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied alien children” arriving at the southern border.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement said it had seen referrals of unaccompanied minors increase by 57% above the numbers in fiscal year 2018.