House Democratic leaders are facing sharp pushback from rank-and-file members on plans to deliver billions of dollars to help ease the migrant crisis at the southern border, threatening to drag out another border funding fight with President Donald Trump.
Leaders of several groups, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have told top Democrats they oppose sending Trump one more dollar for the border without a slew of strict conditions — complicating any deal with Republicans.
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But Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies are under intense pressure to deliver money before the Fourth of July recess, or risk being accused of starving the government’s refugee programs. It’s forced Democrats into another agonizing debate on immigration that could expose simmering tensions across the caucus.
The president in early May asked Congress for $4.5 billion in emergency aid to help address the flow of Central American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, including $3.3 billion for humanitarian assistance.
Democratic spending leaders have said any funding would be limited to humanitarian aid, mostly for families and unaccompanied minors. But a majority of the 38-member Hispanic Caucus say they are deeply skeptical that the Trump administration would use the funds for the humanitarian crisis instead of enforcing the White House’s border policies, and still want the House to take a harder line against Trump.
“There’s got to be guard rails around any money so that it’s used for humanitarian relief, and it’s not diverted toward Trump’s deportation machine,” Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in an interview.
Pelosi’s team is working directly with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to resolve the border issues, with the aim of passing a bill this month. Leadership staff has planned a meeting with CHC staff Wednesday afternoon, according to multiple sources.
Castro already met with Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the No. 4 House Democrat and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) this week, and has plans to sit down with Pelosi herself before a floor vote, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus members have also asked to hear directly from officials who would be responsible for the money, chiefly, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.
Yet one of the biggest hurdles for Democratic leaders is convincing CHC members that the Trump administration actually needs the money.
“That supplemental is a political accommodation,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a border state Democrat, who said he sees no rush to deliver money to Trump’s border officials.
Grijalva said he and other Democrats have already worked to halt the funding package, which he called a “Christmas tree of enforcement provisions” for the White House.
House Democratic leaders, however, say they take the Trump administration at its word about the growing sense of desperation at detention facilities on the border. “We assume they are being forthright,” one Democratic aide said.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a border state lawmaker who sits on the House’s homeland security funding committee, said he feels pressured to deliver cash as nonprofits and churches along the border are forced to provide assistance to migrant families to make up the gap in services.
But he said some Democrats have balked at sending money because they fear it would go to Border Patrol or ICE.
“In my opinion, we do have to come up with some money,” Cuellar said. “But we’ve got to convince our more progressive friends that this is not ICE, this is not deportation, this is to take care of kids.”
Cuellar, who is a member of the CHC, is an exception within the caucus. Most members of the Hispanic Caucus say they won’t agree to a plan unless it includes strict rules for the White House’s policies, particularly on shelters for undocumented minors, which they fear could be turned into long-term detention facilities.
“There is some fear that if the [Office of Refugee and Resettlement] ramped up their beds, will they also try to keep kids in detention longer,” one Democratic aide familiar with discussions said.
Some CHC members argue that Congress already handed billions to the White House for border issues just four months ago, though appropriators point out that the money went to a different program that can’t be used for unaccompanied minors.
This week, leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the CHC and the Congressional Asian and Pacific Islander Caucus began circulating a letter urging appropriators to cut funding for immigration detention facilities for the upcoming fiscal year.
“It is past time for Congress to hold DHS accountable,” they wrote in the letter, which was obtained by POLITICO, condemning ICE’s “rapid detention expansion” and its decision to flout Congress’s prior funding restrictions.
The White House’s border funding request was left out of an earlier disaster aid package the House approved Monday due to an impasse over Trump’s immigration policies. Democrats say they had already ruled out funding for more detention beds, but both parties got stuck on an issue that would allow agencies to share data on undocumented migrants — language that Democrats, including the CHC, have fiercely opposed.
Pressure is likely to mount as border crossings continue to surge this summer. Already, White House officials argue they’re running out of cash for the program that cares for unaccompanied migrants. Without action, they say salaries would be cut and social services would be curtailed.
“There is a backlog with the children right now because [Health and Human Services] is struggling with their bed capacity,” Mark Morgan, recently installed as acting director at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told reporters this week. “Think about that. We are begging. We are asking Congress to please help us.”
Ted Hesson and Heather Caygle contributed to this story.