Spending bill leaves out immigration courts

AP News
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Posted: Sep 18, 2014 7:03 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress' must-pass budget bill ignores the Obama administration's request to accelerate spending on immigration courts to handle the flood of unaccompanied minors at the border — even as it boosts spending flexibility for Border Patrol agents and detention centers.

Immigrant advocates complained that House Republicans who wrote the bill focused on detaining Central American youths and families who crossed the border while ignoring the need for more immigration judges to hear their cases, and lawyers to represent the youths.

"The resolution includes only funding for the prison staffing and no accelerated spending for the judges who hear their legal claims," said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women's Refugee Commission. "House Republicans, believing these women should be returned immediately to often violent situations in their home countries, determined that judges aren't as important as prison guards."

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats barely prevented Republicans from blocking President Barack Obama from fulfilling a promise to issue an executive order before the end of the year that might protect from deportation possibly millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.

Sens. Jeff Session of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas had sought to amend a spending bill Thursday to include language that would block executive action by Obama to curb deportations further. They failed on a 50-50 tie vote, but four Democrats in tight races for re-election plus Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia joined all 45 Republicans on trying to block Obama. The four — Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire — had successfully lobbied Obama to delay any executive action on immigration until after the November elections.

The spending bill for keeping the government open into December and arming Syrian rebels fighting Islamic militants passed the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday. It also was the vehicle for dealing with the influx of young Central American immigrants.

It wasn't the first time House Republicans had resisted the administration's request to spend money on legal proceedings for migrants. Last month, the Justice Department asked to devote more money to providing legal aid to unaccompanied immigrant minors, and House Republicans objected.

Advocates and Democratic congressional aides said the little-noticed omission of language to accelerate spending on immigration courts upset some Democrats. But given that the legislation was needed to avert a government shutdown at the end of the month and was paired with a vote to authorize arming Syrian rebels, the issue got scant attention.

Jen Hing, spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, said the panel focused on only critical spending shifts in this week's legislation. She said the intention of the committee was to keep the legislation "as 'clean' as possible."

The spending bill freezes government agency budgets at current levels into December. The White House budget office also requested a number of items to deal with urgent cases a budget freeze could not accommodate.

Congress never acted on Obama's $3.7 billion request in July to deal with a wave of families and unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America and crossing into Texas from Mexico. Since then the volume of arrivals at the border has dropped sharply and the issue has receded from the spotlight.

But migrants still are coming, and most who arrived never left. The immigration court system has a backlog of nearly 400,000 cases.