U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, right, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, left testify during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 8, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas were at odds Wednesday on how lawmakers should improve border security, as they wrestle with how to handle a White House request for emergency spending.
Mayorkas, speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee, pointed to a sweeping proposal President Joe Biden released early in his term and repeatedly rejected the idea of making smaller changes to immigration policy. He instead told senators that a full overhaul is needed.
“It is unanimous that our broken immigration system is in dire need of reform,” Mayorkas said. “On the very first day of this administration, President Biden presented Congress with a blueprint for that reform. We fully endorsed the need for policy changes, not in piecemeal form, but in a comprehensive form.”
Several senators on the panel, however, called for Mayorkas and the Biden administration to work with Democrats and Republicans on a few bipartisan changes that could be agreed to quickly.
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Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran noted that he’s seen a lot of attempts throughout the years for broad, comprehensive immigration bills, but nothing has made it to a president in decades.
“While I might agree that comprehensive reform or changes are advantageous, it has been my experience in my entire time in Congress that we keep waiting for comprehensive reform and as a result we do next to nothing,” Moran said. “And I hope that you, the administration, will use this opportunity to seriously work with those of us who are willing to make changes to defeat this circumstance in our national security.”
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent, said that while it’s clear DHS needs the additional funding the White House has requested, the agency also must work with Congress on policy changes.
“I would encourage the Department of Homeland Security and the administration to also recognize what I think is fairly obvious, which is that policy must be changed in order for us to get control of the situation on the border,” Sinema said.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that while she would support an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws, the Biden administration must recognize “that we need to make some incremental gains here.”
“We need to be able to look critically at some of the policies that we have in place and admit that they’re just not working right now,” Murkowski said. “And so I hope you take that to heart.”
Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, encouraged GOP senators to work with Democrats “on common sense, bipartisan solutions to help us humanely manage encounters at the border, process claims of non-citizens seeking protection under our nation’s asylum laws, while continuing our country’s long tradition of welcoming people, who flee violence and persecution.”
White House requests
The Biden administration sent Congress two emergency supplemental funding requests last month. The first, for national security, proposes aid to Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and for U.S. border security.
The second, for domestic funding, includes child care, home heating assistance for low-income families and wildland firefighter pay.
The $105 billion national security funding request asks lawmakers to approve $13.6 billion for the Department of Homeland Security.
The $56 billion domestic spending supplemental request calls on Congress to provide $22 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services, about $16 billion of which would go to child care assistance. About $23 billion would go to several federal departments for disaster response and recovery.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra testified alongside Mayorkas on Wednesday, advocating for the child care funding.
“Child care in this country is either unaffordable or unavailable for millions of Americans,” Becerra said. “The average cost of child care ranges from $5,000 to over $17,000 a year depending on where you are in the country. That’s like college tuition for most families.”
Murray said the pandemic-era funding Congress approved to help parents afford childcare and help prop up those businesses expired at the end of September
“Unless we take action, more parents are going to be forced out of the workplace, small businesses are going to be left without the employees they need and families along with our entire economy are really going to feel the consequences,” Murray said.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the committee, said she supports “improving access to quality, affordable childcare,” though she said that should be through the Child Care Development Block Grant program and not emergency funding assistance.
That program provides financial assistance to low-income families.
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Becerra said he and his staff would be more than happy to work with Collins on a long-term solution, but he encouraged her and other senators to approve the emergency funding as well.
“While we get to that long-term solution, we need something for the small businesses that are going to close tomorrow. We need something for those parents who are looking for quality childcare service today,” Becerra. “And without the stabilization funds, we will lose ground, we will lose businesses.”
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