Legislative Update: 6/18/2014
DHS Denies Responsibility for Surge of Minors at the Border
Last Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson denied that his department’s lax enforcement policies are the cause of a surge in illegal alien minors across the southern border. These comments and the debate over the cause of this mass influx of illegal aliens into the U.S. quickly became the focus of what was originally scheduled to be an oversight hearing of the Department of Homeland Security.
The number of illegal alien minors coming to the U.S. from Central America has grown exponentially since the President announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). That program essentially gives illegal aliens who qualify for the DREAM Act a two-year deferral of deportation and work authorization. Although Obama Administration officials have acknowledged the number of unaccompanied minors has increased roughly ten-fold since 2011 — the year before DACA began — to an estimated 60,000 for FY2014, a recently leaked internal DHS memo revealed that the number could reach an astounding 90,000 by the end of the year. (See FAIR Legislative Update, June 11, 2014)
Nevertheless, Secretary Johnson used his testimony before the Senate to argue that Central American violence, and not the Obama Administration’s lax enforcement policies, is the cause for the surge in unaccompanied minors illegally crossing our Southern border. “The situation is motivated primarily by the conditions in the countries that they’re leaving — El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala,” Johnson testified. (Bloomberg Government Transcript, June 11, 2014) “Violence, poverty — I believe that is principally what is motivating the situation.” (Id.) Despite claiming to have “never seen” the leaked DHS memo — which blamed the Administration’s policy of refusing to enforce the law as the cause for the surge — Johnson dismissed it, saying, “I don’t know that I agree with the assessment there.” (Id.)
Likewise, Committee Democrats attempted to shield the Obama Administration from responsibility by casting blame elsewhere. While nearly every Democrat repeated the Administration’s talking point of Central American violence, Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) went further, blaming House Republicans’ failure to pass amnesty for the surge. Claiming that the mass guest worker amnesty bill the Senate passed last year would “help address this issue,” Leahy declared, “The humanitarian crisis we now face is just the latest reminder why House Republicans must act.” (Id.)
Nonetheless, more and more influential individuals are voicing skepticism that violence in Central America is the cause. During an interview with Univision’s “Al Punto,” Julio Ligorria, the Guatemalan ambassador to the U.S., said, “So violence is not the reason… It’s essentially a matter of lack of opportunities, of trying to reach the American dream, but also to achieve family reunification.” (See cis.org, June 9, 2014) And, after hearing reports from her staff who visited the crisis area in Texas, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said, “[M]y staff learned that many of the children were smuggled across the border after hearing radio ads promising they would not be deported.” (Washington Post, June 13, 2014) “My staff also heard that religious organizations are spreading the same message.” (Id.)
Indeed, news outlets in El Salvador and Honduras are spreading information about the Obama Administration’s deferred deportation policy. (See newsmax.com, June 11, 2014) For example, a young Honduran mother intending on crossing the border illegally told The Washington Post, “What we’re hearing is that the Americans are helping Hondurans right now. And even more for women and children.” (Washington Post, June 12, 2014) Additionally, a pregnant Guatemalan woman said to the New York Times, “I heard in Guatemala that people were caught by immigration, but then they let them go and gave them a permit.” (New York Times, June 16, 2014) “The word got around and that’s why so many people are coming.” (Id.)
Meanwhile, Committee Republicans blasted the Obama Administration’s gutting of immigration enforcement for causing the surge of unaccompanied minors. “This is a disaster made by the administration,” said Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA). (Bloomberg Government Transcript, June 11, 2014) Likewise, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) challenged Johnson on why only minors would be fleeing violence from their home countries. “There’s nothing about the violence in Central America that would cause people to be handing over their children” but remain themselves, said Cruz. (Id.) “Is it really your testimony that granting amnesty to some 800,000 people who came illegally as children had no effect in causing a dramatic increase in children being handed over to international cartels to be smuggled in here illegally?,” asked Cruz in disbelief. (Id.; video of Cruz’s exchange with Johnson can be seen here)
Even pro-amnesty Committee Republicans faulted the Obama Administration for the crisis at the border. Gang of Eight Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said Johnson dismissing the Administration’s unilateral actions on enforcement as the cause is “naïve at best and very destructive at worst” while Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) called the decision to act without Congressional approval “irresponsible.” (Bloomberg Government Transcript, June 11, 2014)
A group of former Border Patrol agents went further in their criticism, charging that the surge is deliberately arranged by the Obama Administration for political reasons. “This is not a humanitarian crisis. It is a predictable, orchestrated and contrived assault on the compassionate side of Americans by her political leaders that knowingly puts minor illegal alien children at risk for purely political purposes,” read a statement from the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers. (See wnd.com, June 12, 2014) “Certainly, we are not gullible enough to believe that thousands of unaccompanied minor Central American children came to America without the encouragement, aid and assistance of the United States government,” the officers charged. (Id.)
On Wednesday June 25, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing at 2 p.m. entitled, “An Administration Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge of Unaccompanied Alien Minors.” The hearing can be viewed here.
Congress Spends More Taxpayer Dollars on Unaccompanied Alien Minors
Last week, House and Senate committees approved President Obama’s request for more funding next year to handle the massive flow of unaccompanied illegal alien minors from Central America into the United States. (See Politico, June 10, 2014; The Hill, June 10, 2014; Politico, June 11, 2014)
Last Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education approved annual appropriations legislation for those departments that would allocate $1.94 billion for the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program in the 2015 fiscal year, which is $1.03 billion more than the previous year’s level. (See Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee press release, June 10, 2014) To fund this crisis, the subcommittee cut other Labor and Health and Human Services programs and changed mandatory programs. (See The Hill, June 10, 2014) The subcommittee also agreed to allow the Department of Health and Human Services greater discretion to transfer additional funds to the UAC program if the number of UACs reaches 140,000 in 2015, which it is estimated to do. (Politico, June 10, 2014; FAIR Legislative Update, June 11, 2014) The bill will next be considered by the full Senate Appropriations Committee.
Also last week, the full House Appropriations Committee favorably reported a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill by voice vote. (See House Appropriations Committee DHS FY 2015 bill; see also House Appropriations Committee, Adopted Amendments to DHS FY 2015 bill) Because the Obama Administration requested additional funds two days after the Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee markup, Chairman John Carter (R-TX) introduced a manager’s amendment to incorporate an additional $166 million into the full committee draft. (See House Appropriations Committee, Adopted Amendments to DHS FY 2015 bill) The amended bill reallocated $87.6 million for the UAC crisis by cutting the budgets of the Secretary and other DHS management officials, but $37 million came from rescinding disaster relief funds. (Politico, June 11, 2014) The Committee also inserted a provision requiring the Obama Administration to report on the number of unaccompanied minors expected to be apprehended and detained. (Id.) The bill moves to the full House for consideration.
The additional funds were prompted by a May 30 letter to House and Senate appropriators from the Office of Management and Budget’s Deputy Budget Director Brian Deese requesting more money to deal with the unaccompanied alien minor surge. (Deese Letter to Mikulski at p. 1, May 30, 2014; see also The Hill, June 10, 2014) Specifically, Deese estimated the influx would cost taxpayers $2.28 billion for fiscal year 2015, and asked Congress to provide the additional $166 million to DHS for “base capabilities, such as Customs and Border Protection overtime, contract services for care and support of UACs, and transportation costs.” (Id.) Deese wrote that the Obama Administration asked for more funds next year because the Obama Administration adopts “the assumption that the month-over-month rate of increase in arrivals that we have been experiencing for the last year will continue.” (Id.)
The Office of Management and Budget is not the only one requesting additional funds in the wake of the current illegal immigration crisis. Last Thursday, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott requested $30 million from DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson for state and local law enforcement to assist Border Patrol officers to handle the influx of unaccompanied alien minors in Texas. (Abbott Letter to Johnson, June 12, 2014; see also Texas Tribune, June 12, 2014) As of this date, the Obama Administration has not deployed the National Guard or requested assistance from state or local law enforcement to handle the wave of unaccompanied alien minors.
What Does Cantor’s Loss Mean for Immigration?
When little-known economics professor David Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) by 11 points in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District Republican primary last week, he profoundly shook up GOP House leadership and caused many to speculate about the future of amnesty legislation this year. (Washington Post, Jun. 11, 2014; International Business Times, Jun. 11, 2014; Politico, Jun. 10, 2014; New York Times, Jun. 10, 2014) David Brat, who made immigration and Rep. Cantor’s support for amnesty the central issue of his campaign, raised less than four percent of the money held by Rep. Cantor, but brought about the first defeat of a House Majority Leader since the position was created in 1899. (The Atlantic, Jun. 10, 2014; NBC News, Jun 11, 2014)
Despite Cantor’s loss, GOP House leaders insist David Brat’s win does not change their desire to push amnesty through the lower chamber. At his weekly news conference last Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters that “the issue of immigration reform has not changed.” (Politico, Jun. 12, 2014) “The President continues to ignore laws that he signed into law, violating his oath of office,” and “[e]very time he does this it makes it harder to gain the trust of our members to do the things that need to be done around here.” (Id.)
Representative Cantor himself, who announced last Wednesday that he would step down as Majority Leader on July 31, also said his position on immigration had not changed, and that he did not believe it cost him the election. (Washington Post, Jun. 11, 2014; The Hill, Jun. 15, 2014; CNN, Jun. 12, 2014) While he maintained on Sunday that he was not “for a comprehensive amnesty bill,” he indicated that he does support amnesty for illegal aliens who claim to have been brought to the country as minors. (CNN, Jun. 15, 2014)
Meanwhile, President Obama is saying publically that he still believes this Congress could pass an amnesty this year. “[T]he pundits and the analysts, and some of the conventional wisdom,” he said, talk “about how the politics of immigration reform seem impossible now.” (Wall Street Journal, Jun. 11, 2014) However, he said, “I fundamentally reject that,” and he said he would “tell the Speaker of the House he needs to reject that.” (Id.) Nevertheless, Obama remains committed to announcing changes that further relax his deportation policies in August if the House doesn’t act to his liking. (Wall Street Journal, Jun. 11, 2014; Real Clear, Jun. 13, 2014)
While prospects for amnesty are still uncertain, the GOP House’s new leadership will be decided tomorrow (Thursday 6/19). (The Hill, Jun. 11, 2013) Representative Cantor quickly gave his support to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), currently the House Majority Whip and thus the third ranking position in the House. (Washington Post, Jun. 11, 2014) While Rep. McCarthy has reportedly already received substantial support among House members to replace Cantor as Majority Leader, last Friday Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) announced that he would also run for the position. (Politico, Jun. 13, 2014)
Unfortunately, there is little difference in the immigration positions of these two members. (Breitbart.com, Jun. 16, 2014) Representative McCarthy has already backed amnesty for the bulk of the nation’s illegal aliens, both personally and through support of the House Leadership’s immigration principles. (The Hill, Jan. 22, 2014; FAIR Legislative Update, Jan. 29, 2014) Representative Labrador, an immigration attorney for 15 years, also supports amnesty, but no longer believes it should be passed in 2014. (Politico, Apr. 25, 2014; Roll Call, Feb. 5, 2013) In February of last year, as part of the House’s “Gang of Eight,” Rep. Labrador indicated that he believed in legalization for most of the nation’s illegal aliens, saying “[a]nything we do is going to be called amnesty by any number of people. The reality is that we have to do something about the people that are here.” (Id.) However, he dropped out of the “Gang of Eight” group last June over a dispute over how to pay for illegal aliens’ health care. (ABC News, Jun. 3, 2013) As of May, he still supported smaller bills this year loosening restrictions on illegal aliens and increasing legal immigration, but continues to say that “[an immigration bill] should wait until 2015.” (Washington Times, May 8, 2014; Breitbart.com, Jun. 13, 2014) Most recently, on the Laura Ingraham radio show yesterday, Rep. Labrador refused to sign the FAIR Congressional Task Force pledge that he would not support increases in legal immigration and legalization for illegal aliens. (Washington Examiner, Jun. 17, 2014; Breitbart.com, Jun. 17, 2014)
Maine Agency to Remove Illegal Aliens from Welfare Program
Last week, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”) announced that it will comply with federal law and cease providing General Assistance benefits to illegal aliens. (DHHS Press Release) Maine’s General Assistance program is a taxpayer-funded service, administered through Maine’s municipalities, that purchases basic necessities, including food and housing, for individuals who cannot afford them.
Previously, DHHS rules only required an applicant to demonstrate need for General Assistance benefits to be eligible. (Portland Press Herald, Jun. 12, 2014) The application process did not include any verification by the state or municipality of the applicant’s immigration status. (Id.) However, federal law prohibits states from providing public benefits to illegal aliens unless the state’s legislature has passed a law affirmatively providing for such. (8 U.S.C. 1621(a)) Currently, no Maine law affirmatively authorizes the agency to provide any sort of public benefits, including General Assistance, to illegal aliens. (Portland Press Herald, Jun. 12, 2014)
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew announced that Maine’s municipalities will be notified this week of the change of procedure. (Id.) “We are moving forward and will continue our efforts to align programs with federal rules to ensure that precious taxpayer dollars are used appropriately for those in need and protected for those who are legal residents of Maine and this country,” Mayhew said. (Id.) Mayhew noted that restricting General Assistance benefits from illegal aliens will affect an estimated 1,000 people and save the state over $1 million a year. (Id.) However, this expense does not reflect the total cost of providing illegal aliens with General Assistance benefits to taxpayers, as the state only reimburses most municipalities for about 50 percent of General Assistance costs, and as much as 90 percent of the costs for Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, where there is more need for assistance. (Id.) The rest of the costs are paid by taxpayers through their municipalities’ budgets.
DHHS’s announcement runs contrary to Maine Attorney General Janet Mills’ recent opinion, which stated that denying illegal aliens General Assistance benefits violates their equal protection rights under both the Maine and the United States’ Constitutions. (Bangor Daily News, Jun. 11, 2014) She has also instructed Maine’s municipalities to ignore DHHS’s new rule and continue providing illegal aliens welfare benefits. (MPBN News, Jun., 12, 2014) However, neither the Maine Supreme Court nor the United States Supreme Court has held that illegal aliens have an absolute constitutional right to state public benefits.
DHHS’s new policy becomes effective this week. (DHHS Press Release) Commissioner Mayhew warned, “If municipalities choose to offer assistance to illegal, undocumented immigrants, they will do so without state funding support.” (Portland Press Herald, Jun. 12, 2014)