Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner introduced a $659 million immigration bill in the House. The bill is an attempt to address the humanitarian and national security crisis occurring at the southern border, but so far it has been received with mixed press. Is it a reasonable bill?
Let’s start with the raw statistics. The bill would provide $405 million to the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and another $197 million to the Department of Health and Human Services to care for children in U.S. custody, with the remaining amounts going towards hiring more judges for deportation hearings and transportation to reunite families in their home countries. It would also tweak a 2008 law, and allow unaccompanied minors from Central America to be deported more quickly.
One criticism that bill has received is that it is not even close to the amount that the President requested. President Obama initially requested $3.7 billion, while the Democratic Senate introduced a bill with $2.7 billion in funding. There is a reasonable explanation for this, however; the Republican bill only funds the border operations through the end of the fiscal year (which ends September 30th), while the President wanted funding for the next fifteen months.
The House’s funding amount is prudent, considering how fluid the circumstances are along the border. No one knows how long this crisis will last, or how serious it will become. In fifteen months, the flow of minors into this country might ebb to a trickle, or explode into a deluge; in short, no one knows. A lot of that will depend on whether or not President Obama attempts to use his executive powers; some have suggested that he plans to grant temporary work permits to illegal immigrants already in the country, which will undoubtedly cause more people to come to America. It should be noted, however, that the President himself has not tipped his hand about a potential executive order, and that many of the allegations that amnesty is coming soon have been advanced by Republicans looking to hurt the Democrats politically (this is in much the same vein as the fantasy that Republicans are trying to impeach President Obama, which has almost exclusively been advanced by Democrats in order to aid fundraising).
The House bill also deserves praise because it does not require new funding, but rather moves money primarily from FEMA in order to pay it. The Senate has responded by beefing up its own bill to $3.5 billion – it added funding for fighting wildfires in the west as well as money for Israel. While that cattle-trading is common place in Congress, it will not be enough to appease Senate Republicans, who also want to change the 2008 law which slows the deportation process down for illegal immigrants. President Obama has also asked for that change, and the Republican bill sensibly gives it to him, leaving only Senate Democrats in opposition. It seems that House Speaker Boehner is at least trying to find common ground on substantive problems, rather than trying to slide a greased-up pork-barrel bill through the Senate.
For practical reasons as well, the House bill is virtuous. Congress adjourns on Thursday for their August recess, making it imperative that some sort of resolution be reached before then. If nothing is done before the recess, it is likely that more children will suffer and the country will remain vulnerable to the small but significant minority of illegal immigrants who enter the country with serious illnesses or criminal records. A short term, low cost fix which grants the President more flexibility in deportations is more likely to pass through Congress and receive the President’s signature under a compressed time frame than a much larger, more contentious bill. Yet despite this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to jam immigration reform into the House bill, which would be difficult to pass at all and utterly impossible to pass in two days.
If Senate Democrats are truly interested in addressing the humanitarian crisis along the border, they will vote in favor of the stopgap House bill, and get back to work in September on a longer-term solution. But what if they refuse, because it might look bad in November? What does that say about their agenda?
* Thomas Warns is a J.D. Candidate in the Class of 2015 at New York University, and the Editor-in-Chief for the N.Y.U. Journal of Law & Liberty.