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Lawmakers debate need for, focus of $3.7 billion border request

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WASHINGTON – Two days after President Barack Obama asked for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to help stem a rising tide of immigrant children on the Southwest border, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were split over the request.

Opponents noted that the money will go to deal with immigrants who are here instead of stopping them at the border, prompting Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., to ask a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing why the U.S. should “double-down on the same failed immigration policies.”

But supporters like Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said the funding is needed to deal with a growing humanitarian crisis in the short term, while the U.S. works on the longer-term solution of comprehensive immigration reform.

“The issue of the children is a humanitarian crisis. It’s about the advocacy that we provide for children in this country. It’s about our values,” Grijalva said at a morning news conference with immigration reform advocates.

But Grijalva and the others said that said while funding is needed to deal with the current crisis, it is important not to tie that crisis to the larger issue of comprehensive immigration reform, repeating calls for its passage.

The border crisis was created when tens of thousands of Central Americans, mostly women and children, began fleeing their countries and crossing the border in Texas, quickly outstripping the ability of federal officials to handle them.

Unlike most other immigrants, U.S. law requires that children from Central American countries who are caught here illegally be handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services for housing, food, medical and other care until they can be placed, while awaiting immigration proceedings.

That has overwhelmed federal facilities and forced immigrants from Texas to be shipped to Arizona, Oklahoma and other states for holding. It prompted the president on Tuesday to ask Congress for an emergency appropriation of $3.7 billion to deal with the “urgent humanitarian situation on both sides of the Southwest border.”

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the Appropriations Committee that if the funding request is not approved, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will run out of money by mid-August and Customs and Border Protection will run out by mid-September at current immigration rates.

While some of the $3.7 billion would go to border security and tp efforts to return children who are caught here – or to keep them from coming here in the first place – about $1.8 billion would go to HHS to help care and house for those children while they are here.

That’s fine with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who said at the Appropriations Committee hearing that the first goal “must be to protect the safety and health of children and to make sure we provide the resources to do that.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she is focused on providing the resources needed to care for children while they are detained.

“We’re focused on fighting organized crime on our border and reducing illegal immigration, but we cannot lose sight of our responsibility to provide these children with the most basic legal information and guidance,” Murray said. “We have to make sure that if they have valid claims for asylum, someone is there to help them pursue that.”

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, complained that the Obama administration is sending mixed messages.

“As we hear more and more about the situation with these young people coming across the border, you know what my ears are hearing? ‘Round them up and ship them back,’” Harkin said.

“On one hand they (administration officials) say we want to send these kids back as soon as possible,” Harkin said. “Then they turn around and say, ‘Well, these kids are escaping violence and drugs and sexual abuse and gangs.’ How do you reconcile those two?”

Committee Republicans complained that the funding would deal with the immediate crisis at the border, but not the causes.

“More money may well be needed to deal with the consequences of this crisis, but it does not address the causes of the problem and that’s what’s troubling to me,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

That echoed statements that Arizona’s senators made on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., noted the “nearly $2 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services, which has no role in border enforcement at all. None.” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would not support a funding request that does not address the causes of the situation.

“I cannot vote for a provision that will perpetuate an unacceptable human crisis,” McCain said Wednesday.

Senators on Thursday also questioned why the funding is now part of an emergency supplemental request after years of seeing steadily increasing numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border.

“I find it very difficult and very troubling to think that we are just now trying to get our hands around this,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.