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Why Democrats disagreed about the best way to improve conditions at the border

At the center of the conflict is the question of what’s most needed at the border right now: more funding or more oversight?

Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center
An overcrowded fenced area holding families at a Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center is seen in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas, on June 11, 2019.
Office of Inspector General/DHS/Handout via REUTERS

A recent report from the U.S. Office of the Inspector General painted a grim picture of the situation at the border: Customs and Border Protection holding children for longer than 72 hours, adults held in rooms with only standing room for a week, and overcrowded facilities.

Under the President’s “Zero Tolerance Policy,” all adults apprehended crossing the border are prosecuted, with no exceptions for asylum seekers or those with children. Prior administrations had prosecuted migrants sparingly and the system is now overloaded.

Late last month, the U.S. House of Representatives sought to take action to improve conditions at the border. But while the Democrats that control that body all agree something needs to be done on the border, the fight over a border bill laid bare a conflict between moderates and progressives ⁠— the Problem Solvers Caucus and both the Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

At the center of the conflict is the question of what’s most needed at the border right now: more funding or more oversight?

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Not another dollar

It took time for House Democrats to agree to a stop-gap emergency bill to provide humanitarian assistance at the southern border.

The first bill to make it to the floor came out of negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It provided additional funding to CBP, but specified exactly how money could be used by Trump administration agencies at processing facilities. That satisfied some members’ desires that agencies not be given a “blank check.”  It also provided support for non-profit organizations housing asylum seekers, additional safeguards for children, and a reduction in funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (which houses migrants after they have been processed by CBP).

Rep. Ilhan Omar
MinnPost file photo by Tony Nelson
Rep. Ilhan Omar
That bill didn’t satisfy Progressive Caucus Whip Rep. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’s Fifth District.

“We cannot continue to throw money at a dysfunctional system,” Omar said as she left a tense meeting in Pelosi’s office on June 26.

She voted against the bill, along with three other Democrats: Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, saying they would not vote in favor of providing another dollar of funding for Customs and Border Protection or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (which would have received an additional $1.2 billion and $128 million, respectively).

The bill, opposed by most Republicans, passed the House 320–195.

The Senate, however, rejected the bill on a 37-55 vote. Instead, it passed its own border bill.

The Senate bill was different. It did not have support for non-governmental organizations housing asylum seekers and it did not have many of the funding restrictions that were in the House bill. The Senate bill also included an additional $50 million in funding to speed up processing of asylum claims.

That bill passed 84-8.

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Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith voted for the House bill when it was considered by the Senate, and when it failed, the Senate bill. (Sen. Amy Klobuchar was not present for the votes, which were held on the same day as the first Democratic presidential debate). Smith explained that her vote for the latter by saying it provided help that was too critical to pass up: funding for supplies, in addition to medical care and alternatives to detention. “These are all really important provisions,” Smith said. “And I think this was the best that we could get out of a Republican controlled Senate and what the president would sign.”

But before the president would get a chance to sign the Senate bill, it had to go back to the House.

An expedient solution

The House Problem Solvers Caucus, which includes Third District Rep. Dean Phillips, pushed to pass the Senate bill immediately — without modifications that would require further negotiation between the House and Senate.

For Phillips, there was no disagreement over whether children are being mistreated. He just believed that agencies needed more funding immediately, and that the Senate bill was the most feasible option. Philips voted for the initial House bill, but as his office put it: “With Mitch McConnell running the Senate, [passing the Senate bill] was a case of getting something or getting nothing.”

Brendan Welch, Phillips’ Communications Director, said that Phillips will be leading a bipartisan group of House members later this month to see what’s happening at the border with their own eyes.

“Dean is committed to working with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find bipartisan solutions to the humanitarian crisis at our border,” Welch said. “With a Republican Senate and a Republican in the White House, right now the only way to make meaningful progress for migrant children and families is on a bipartisan basis.”

Rep. Dean Phillips
MinnPost file photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Dean Phillips
The Senate version of the bill passed the House. But this time, the opposition wasn’t just four members — it was a large portion of the Progressive Caucus and Hispanic Caucus, as well as St. Paul Rep. Betty McCollum.

In an email to constituents, McCollum said that she “could not in good conscience vote to provide the Trump administration with additional funding without strict and enforceable conditions to protect the well-being of these vulnerable children.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus called the final bill “a betrayal of our American values.” The New York Times headline read: “House Passes Senate Border Bill In Striking Defeat For Pelosi.”

“In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill,” Pelosi wrote to her colleagues. “As we pass the Senate bill, we will do so with a Battle Cry as to how we go forward to protect children in a way that truly honors their dignity and worth.”

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Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who serves with Omar on the leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called out Phillips’ in a post on Twitter: “Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus? Wouldn’t they want to at least fight against contractors who run deplorable facilities? Kids are the only ones who could lose today,” Pocan wrote.

On the floor of the House, Phillips and fellow Problem Solvers member Max Rose (D-NY) asked him to apologize.

He did not.

A big giveaway?

It wasn’t just progressives in Congress who were critical of the decision to pass the Senate bill; immigrant-rights advocates in Minnesota also took notice.

In the days before Independence Day, advocates took to the streets of Minneapolis, and later to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office, protesting the treatment of asylum seekers at the border.

Common Cause Minnesota replied to a post by Phillips on Twitter in which he explained his advocacy for the Senate bill, asking, “Were any Latino or immigrant led group/org working with children and families at the boarder [sic] asked for what they wanted? Were the broader policy implication explained to those providing frontline care? When is power held accountable? How does that policy honor all who’ve died?”

Cassanda Berg, of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, characterized the Senate bill as a “big giveaway” with “limited strings attached.” She noted that MIRAC was more aligned with Omar and McCollum’s position.

Berg has direct experience with conditions on the border. In April, she traveled with 11 other MIRAC activists to Tucson, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. Berg said they volunteered at The Inn in Tucson, a temporary housing shelter for asylum seekers established by the local United Methodist churches.

“The first thing they do when people come in is they’re welcomed. Then they can call their family. Then they get a hot meal, a shower, and we take them upstairs to get donated clothes,” she said, adding, “So if a church with no assistance from the government can handle that, it’s honestly unconscionable — the treatment of migrants in these detention facilities.”

On Monday, Pelosi announced that the House plans to vote on new legislation to address the treatment of migrants in the coming weeks. But any potential leverage for including new safeguards may be gone, since Republicans already secured funding for CBP and ICE via the Senate bill.

The situation as a whole has many immigrants right advocates, including Berg, upset with the entire process and the compromises made by Democratic legislators.

“I’m not sure what the repercussions would be,” Berg said, in reference to those who pushed the Senate version of the bill along. “I would say that we need to continue to put pressure on these representatives to take an actual moral stance against agencies that are out of control and can’t be trusted.”