President Donald Trump may be on track to win funds for new physical barriers along the southern border, but they come with caveats.
The spending bill set for votes Thursday would provide $1.375 billion for approximately 55 miles of new barriers in the Rio Grande Valley sector, far less than the $5.7 billion the President requested, and with restrictions on where the structures can be mounted and what materials can be used.
While the 1,169-page spending package falls short of some of his administration’s requests, it does provide funding for additional immigration judges and boosts border security. It also would limit the Department of Homeland Security from bringing enforcement actions against potential sponsors of unaccompanied children.
Here’s what the bill says on immigration:
Physical barriers are approved, with limits
The bill includes $1.375 billion for approximately 55 miles of new physical barriers in the Rio Grande Valley sector. Trump had asked for enough money for 234 miles of new barriers.
Customs and Border Protection had previously received funding from Congress to start construction in the Rio Grande Valley region, which remains the highest sector for border apprehensions. The 14 miles of new border wall were initially scheduled to start in February, but have been postponed to March.
There are limits, however.
The administration cannot use concrete wall or other prototypes that are not already in use for fencing and barriers. There’s currently a variation of barriers along the border that are designed to stop cars and people traveling on foot.
The prohibitions on materials outlined in the bill likely won’t impede on CBP operations, given that the agency has said it prefers barriers that they can see through, which concrete wall would not permit.
It’s not just a matter of what is used, however, but also where barriers are mounted. The legislation lists locations where funding cannot be used for barriers. They include: Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, La Lomita Historical Park, Bentsen-Rio State Park, and Vista del Mar Ranch.
Notably, the National Butterfly Center, which is just north of the Rio Grande in Texas and adjacent to one of the first new wall projects being constructed under Trump, is included in the list. The North American Butterfly Association, which operates the center, has asked a federal court to halt construction, arguing that it must be stopped to prevent destruction of property and “adverse environmental impacts.”
To move forward, the government will likely have to seize private property to build new barriers through eminent domain. It’s not a new practice – the government used it following the Secure Fence Act of 2006 – but it can be a lengthy process.
According to the Justice Department, as of last month, approximately 80 cases were still outstanding. In general, though, CBP is able to proceed with construction while lawsuits move forward.
Border agents and technology
The legislation also would allocate money for border security, such as inspection equipment and new technology. It includes: $564 million for port-of-entry inspection equipment; $191 million for ports of entry construction; $100 million for new technology; $127 million for aircraft and marine assets.
The bill includes funding for 600 new customs officers and 200 additional border patrol agents over the last fiscal year level.
The bill includes funding for an average 45,274 detentions beds per day, with the intent to return to 40,520 by the end of the fiscal year, which is the level funded in the last fiscal year, but short of the administration’s request of 52,000 detention beds.
As of January 1, more than 48,000 individuals were in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Immigration detention became a major point of contention in the last few days. Democrats argued that by allowing ICE to up the number of detention beds, the agency will have the capacity to pursue a larger swath of undocumented immigrants, including those without criminal records. But Republicans view the number of detention beds as central to limiting the ability of detained undocumented immigrants to be released into the US as they await hearings.
Democrats had also pushed for a cap on interior arrests, though that’s not included in the bill.
ICE contracts with county jails and private companies, which operate the facilities where many of the beds are. Beds are just that – beds for undocumented immigrants in detention. To that end, the number of beds is representative of how many undocumented immigrants, whether they have criminal convictions or not, can be detained.
Costs per bed include the expense of keeping each person in detention, including payments for guards, health care, building maintenance and administrative overhead, ICE says. Costs can also vary depending on who is being detained. For example, the daily rate for an adult bed is less expensive than the rate for families who stay in a detention center that’s suitable for children.
The legislation says that funds cannot be used by the Department Homeland Security to bring enforcement actions against a sponsor, or potential sponsor, or members of a household of a sponsor, or potential sponsor, of an unaccompanied child based on data provided by Health and Human Services, the department charged with caring and placing children with a sponsor the US.
Last year, the Trump administration implemented new information-sharing policies between HHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement that included stricter vetting of adults who sponsor unaccompanied children. It also required the fingerprinting of everyone in the home and the sharing of that information with ICE.
The move received fierce backlash from immigrant advocates who argued it led to children staying in HHS shelters for a longer period of time. The administration later reversed the policy of requiring fingerprints of all adult members living in the household of a potential sponsor.
The language in the legislation released late Wednesday goes a step further by blocking ICE from using the information provided by a sponsor against them, unless that individual has a felony conviction or pending felony charge, among other things.
The legislation includes $414 million in humanitarian aid for the border, in the form of enhanced medical support, transportation, food and clothing for migrants in detention.
This has become particularly critical for CBP, as they see an influx in migrants arriving with medical issues. According to a senior Border Patrol official, 50 people a day are referred to the hospital by the agency. Last year, 12,000 people hospitalized; this year, that figure is on track to hit 28,000, according to the official.
The majority of apprehensions along the border are migrants from Central America – a shift away from previous years when many of those trying to cross the border illegally were from Mexico.
In an acknowledgment of the deteriorating conditions in Central America, the legislation provides $527 million for humanitarian assistance.
The bill includes funding for 75 new immigration judges, which is line with the administration’s ask.
The nation’s immigration courts have been facing a massive backlog of more than 800,000 pending cases. The administration has sought to bulk up resources to resolve cases quickly. Under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department also implemented an annual quota that judges were required to meet – a move that received criticism from the National Association of Immigration Judges.
To further chip away at the backlog, the legislation also allocates $ 7.4 million for additional attorneys and for courtroom expansion to assist with cases currently in the system.
The emphasis on oversight this term is made clear in the legislation: The measure requires ICE to report and make public information about numbers and make up of individuals in custody, specifically family units, border apprehension detainees, interior enforcement detainees and those who have reported a positive federal credible fear claim.
It also would bar Department of Homeland Security from preventing a member of Congress from entering a facility used to detain or house children.
Last year, Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley was denied entry to a facility housing migrant children. The episode garnered national attention, as other Democrats expressed similar concerns. The inclusion of this language appears to draw from that and forecasts more visits from lawmakers in the future.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly, Geneva Sands, Dianne Gallagher, and Devon M. Sayers contributed to this report.