Child migrant crisis: 4 consequences if Congress doesn't act before recess

President Obama has requested $3.7 billion in emergency funds for the child migrant crisis, but Republicans and Democrats disagree on numerous details. Here’s what could happen if Congress breaks without doing anything.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (r.) and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell (l.) attend a Senate Appropriations hearing on 'Review of the President's Emergency Supplemental Request for Unaccompanied Children and Related Matters' on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 10, 2014. President Obama urged Congress on July 9 to pass his request quickly for $3.7 billion in funds to address the influx of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America crossing the US Border.

With two weeks before Congress breaks for a five-week summer recess, the forecast for solving the child-migrant crisis on the US Southern border does not look good. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said he’s losing optimism that Congress can address the situation before the break.

Republicans and Democrats disagree on whether a change to law is needed to stem the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America. They also disagree on the size and content of a spending package, and whether it should be paid for by an “offset” elsewhere in the budget.

What will happen if members of Congress do not pass President Obama’s $3.7 billion request for emergency funds for the crisis – or even a version of it – before they leave? 

Here are four likely consequences:

Kids will be backed up at the borders. If the trends of May and June continue, the Department of Health and Human Services – which cares for unaccompanied minors – will have more children arriving than it can handle starting in August. “They will be backed up at the borders” and be “in detention and holding pens until we can move them,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said at a Senate Appropriations hearing July 10.

The money requested for her agency – $1.8 billion, about half of Mr. Obama’s total – “is purely for the care of the children” as they await immigration hearings, Secretary Burwell said. That care covers not only housing, but also medical wellness exams, mental-health interviews, and education about their legal rights and the process ahead.

Money for border enforcement will run out. “Doing nothing is not an option,” Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security secretary, said at the same hearing. If Congress goes home and the present “burn rate” of spending continues, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will run out of money by mid-August, Secretary Johnson said. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will run dry by mid-September.

With the surge of children, ICE has been strained by higher transport costs and finding increased detention capability, especially for parents with children, while CBP has been working overtime.

“If there is no supplemental, we're going to have to go to some dramatic, harsh form of reprogramming ... away from some vital homeland security programs,” Johnson said.

Something that could change this equation: a dramatic reversal in the number of migrants. The flow in the Rio Grande Valley, the focus of the influx, has recently dropped, from an average of 283 apprehensions of unaccompanied minors per day in mid-June to 120 last week, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Whether it will last, no one knows.

Immigration caseloads will continue to get heavier. It can take a year or more before immigration cases for unaccompanied children are heard, and as a result of the delay, 46 percent of children don’t show up at their hearing. As of the end of June, 375,000 cases were pending in the immigration courts – an all-time high, according to the Department of Justice. The DOJ currently has 243 judges and 59 courts to handle them. Many of the courts are in border areas and some in ICE centers.

The emergency request by the president would enable 40 more judges to handle an additional 55,000 to 75,000 cases.

States and localities will move on their own. On Monday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) announced that he is sending up to 1,000 Texas guardsmen to work with state Department of Public Safety personnel – at a cost to Texas of about $12 million a month. Governor Perry has repeatedly asked Obama to deploy the National Guard to the border.

More than 50,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed the border so far this fiscal year, with most of them crossing in the Rio Grande Valley. Perry also cited criminal activity as a reason for his move.

"I will not stand idly by," he said according to CNN. "The price of inaction is too high."

Obama’s emergency request does not include any funds for National Guard deployment to the border, though Speaker Boehner says it should.

The governor’s move illustrates the ripple effect that federal inaction can have on the states. It also highlights the politics of immigration reform. Perry is considered a possible GOP presidential candidate for 2016 – and greater security on the border plays well with the Republican base.

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