Broken BorderMore in this series
WASHINGTON — As reports of migrant children being held in squalid conditions at federal facilities near the border continue to draw outrage, Democrats successfully pushed a $4.5 billion humanitarian aid package through the U.S. House late Tuesday evening with a vote of 230 to 195.
The passage of the bill marks a narrow victory for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who managed to coalesce a unified front after several days of uncertainty and division within the party. Ultimately, only four Democrats broke rank, and none of them were Texans. Among the Republicans from the state, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, was the only member to buck his party, voting in favor of the bill. Hurd's district covers much of the state's border with Mexico.
In the days leading up to the vote, opposition on the Democratic side was concentrated primarily among members of the House Progressive and Congressional Hispanic caucuses who voiced concerns that the Trump administration would twist the bill’s intent to put some of the money toward border enforcement rather than migrant aid.
On a Sunday conference call, more than 15 members of the Hispanic Caucus and 30 members of the Progressive Caucus expressed their reservations about supporting the bill, according to The New York Times. And at a tense meeting in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office Monday evening, prominent members of both groups spoke against the bill.
Before the bill reached the House floor for a vote Tuesday evening, a notice from the U.S. House Appropriations Committee revealed that amendments to the bill would add several provisions aimed at funneling allocations directly into humanitarian aid. They established a 90-day limit on the retention of unaccompanied children at detention facilities, required higher standards of medical care and hygiene for unaccompanied children, and guaranteed access to translation services and legal support funds for all detained migrants. The new version of the bill also includes an accountability clause that threatens to end contracts with detention centers that fail to meet a certain standard of upkeep.
Democrats found themselves under heightened pressure to expedite border relief funding after inflammatory reports last week about the conditions within migrant detention centers. The Associated Press and other outlets exposed overcrowding, poor hygiene, and a lack of soap, diapers and toothpaste at a detention center in the West Texas town of Clint, citing lawyers who are monitoring conditions there under the terms of the Flores agreement, a 1993 settlement that dictates how children and families should be held in detention. More than a dozen children at the Clint facility were reportedly sick, and some were being quarantined, the AP reported.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat with membership in both the House Progressive and House Hispanic caucuses, played a central role in shoring up support for the bill among the Democrats' left wing.
As the vote on the bill, originally expected earlier Tuesday, was pushed later into the evening, Escobar expressed her exasperation outside of afternoon votes.
"Oh my God! I am all for improving this bill and would never oppose efforts to make improvements, but this is a supplemental appropriations bill," Escobar said. "It's not an immigration bill, and there is an urgency, at least on my part, to get it out the door as quickly as possible."
Still, for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership, the bill presented a double bind. Pushing the bill through creates the risk that the Trump administration will use some of the funds to further his immigration agenda. But by blocking the bill, Democrats would have ensured further delays in addressing the poor detention center conditions at the border and provided Trump with potential fodder to shift the blame toward them.
At a press conference Tuesday morning featuring some proponents of the bill, Escobar acknowledged "legitimate concerns" about how the Trump administration could implement the funding. But she said that the legislation had "been crafted very carefully" with an eye towards closing loopholes that the Trump administration might use to direct the funding toward enforcement or deportation.
"Those appropriators have guaranteed that this money cannot be transferred," Escobar said. "So it cannot be used for mass deportations. It cannot be used for an ICE deportation force."
The House bill will need to be reconciled with a version proposed in the Republican-led Senate.
“The sooner that they take up the bill that we pass today and the sooner the president signs that bill, the sooner that that funding will get where it needs to go,” Escobar said.
But House Republicans were quick to criticize Democrats for not trying to craft a bill that could have drawn more bipartisan support. In a tweet, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, accused Democrats of choosing to “perpetuate hatred of the President” over pursuing “real solutions.”
U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, similarly argued that Democrats have ignored crisis signals at the border. "Rather than operating in a bipartisan fashion, House Democratic leadership offered a bill which will only exacerbate the situation," he said in a statement.
Abby Livingston contributed to this report.