The House HHS appropriations committee on Wednesday passed amendments to its $177 billion health funding bill to soften and chip away at the Trump administration's rescinded family separation policy and the continued fallout.
The committee approved an amendment introduced by health subcommittee Chair Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) to keep families awaiting adjudication in the courts together under Department of Homeland Security jurisdiction.
A similar proposal by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is circulating in the upper chamber, although according to Tillis the question of who should have jurisdiction over the detained families—DHS or HHS—hasn't been fully worked out. The Tillis bill would also beef up the courts to expedite asylum cases and the other petitions. No Democrats in the Senate have signed onto the measure.
House Democrats led by health subcommittee ranking Democrat Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut blasted Cole's amendment as tantamount to keeping entire families in cages indefinitely. DeLauro and her colleagues on the panel urged Republicans to use GPS tracking devices instead and release the families detained at the border. They framed the option as a less expensive alternative to the hefty price tags associated with the contracted facilities that currently house migrants.
Cole acknowledged the troubling nature of the issue, citing the Obama administration's similar troubles during the 2014 and 2016 spikes in the number of unaccompanied minors that HHS found itself struggling to care for. He tried to temper the debate by emphasizing that his amendment only focused on families waiting adjudication.
The Trump administration hung its justification for the family separations on the 1997 Flores settlement, which bans long-term imprisonment of migrant children and sets standards for their care. Ultimately Flores created HHS' role in caring for unaccompanied migrant kids.
HHS had $1.3 billion earmarked in 2018 for housing unaccompanied minors.
Yet two additional Democratic amendments aimed at improving HHS' processes for the migrant families in question passed unanimously: one that orders HHS to release its plan and processes in place for reuniting the families already split, and the other to keep siblings under HHS custody together.
On Tuesday, HHS missed its court-ordered deadline to reunite all the kids under age 5 who had been taken from their parents at the border. According to officials in a media briefing, four children had already been reunified with family before the deadline, and on Tuesday 50 more were scheduled to be reunified with their parents who are in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. An additional child was waiting for a parent's criminal background check to clear.
Of the 20 kids deemed eligible for reunification but seeing a delay, 12 had parents who were already deported and eight had parents still undergoing screenings. An additional 27 children can't be reunified yet because they or their families haven't passed the department's screening, officials said. Some had parents with serious criminal history discovered during background checks, including child cruelty, human smuggling, a murder warrant or robbery. Some had entered with adults who are not their parents. Two parents were deemed unfit because of child abuse or because one adult was living with someone with a history of sexual abuse of a child. And still others had parents in criminal custody still awaiting clearance.