Blog: Funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Beyond February 27, 2015

Carolyn Burstein
Jan 23, 2015

Prior to the passage of H.R. 240 on January 14, NETWORK, along with 21 other representatives of the interfaith community working toward immigration justice, sent a letter to all members of Congress requesting that they oppose the proffered bill and any amendments that would repeal either the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). The letter also opposed any attempt to reinstate the dysfunctional Secure Communities Program – a controversial federal fingerprint-swapping program on immigrants that Obama’s executive actions ended. The purpose of the letter was to reiterate that these amendments were “morally indefensible and would destroy the lives of millions of men, women and children living in the United States who contribute to our communities and who deserve not only short-term relief from deportation, but also a meaningful opportunity to earn their citizenship.”

Unfortunately, the GOP-led House voted 236-191 to pass legislation funding DHS, and all the measures listed above were included, effectively gutting the administration’s efforts to protect millions of immigrants and putting them again at risk of deportation. Interestingly, 26 House Republicans from states with large Latino populations, such as California, Florida, Nevada and New York, voted against the amendment killing DACA, but to no avail since it passed anyway on a 218-209 vote. Some of these members who broke rank with their fellow Republicans were especially irritated that the House leadership appeared to do the bidding of House hardliners and were worried about the perception of the party as hostile to immigrants. However, the same 26 broadly supported the anti-Obama “executive overreach” intent of the GOP conference.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), a strong proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, commented on the passage of H.R. 240 saying, “I always believed they would stop at nothing when it came to stopping any advance in immigration reform, but I never thought they’d just go after everything that has been issued over the last five years.” Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) said that if H.R. 240 were allowed to pass in the Senate it would have disastrous effects on the economy and a devastating impact on immigrant families.

The DHS funding bill is only the opening shot in what is likely to be a contentious and long fight over how to deal with the more than 11 million immigrants in this country. We have already endured several aspects of this political struggle in the past few years. In addition to the House assault on the president’s immigration orders, several Republican state attorneys general have launched legal challenges, which have yet to play out.

Meanwhile, DHS must be funded beyond February 27 (the deadline imposed in the 2014 budget deal), which is only five weeks away, but the Senate leadership seems intent on focusing on the Keystone XL Pipeline Project for the next few weeks as its first priority.

Even after the retreat of House and Senate Republicans in Hershey, PA on January 15-16 and listening intently to their members, Republican leaders still have no idea how to resolve the impasse on DHS funding with its attendant immigration dilemmas, according to Politico. As NPR (National Public Radio) put it more colorfully, “there was little grand takeaway.” It is clear that the aggressive immigration provisions in H.R. 240 stand no chance of getting the 60 votes in the Senate needed to prevent a filibuster.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that the Senate would try to pass the House’s hardline bill, but “if we’re unable to do that, we’ll see what happens.” That statement puts a lace cover over a nude strategy. Equally strange is House Speaker John Boehner’s statement: “The Senate is going to work its will. The House is going to work its will. We’ll find some way to resolve our differences.” Even if these differences are resolved, the president made clear in his State of the Union Address on January 20, that a veto threat looms over any attempt to undo his executive actions on deportation relief.

Republicans are in more trouble than these unhelpful statements from House and Senate leaders indicate because they are under pressure to assure the nation that they can truly govern, meet conservatives’ demands for an aggressive response to President Obama’s “executive overreach,” and not miss a funding deadline, a real blemish on their record so early in the 114th Congress. Congressional Quarterly reports that rather than face a lapse in funding for a major department like DHS, GOP Senate leaders may be forced to send the House a clean bill, though such a move would face resistance from many members in both houses of Congress. Senate Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) has pledged that Republican leaders would not allow DHS funding to expire. reports that even some of the Senate’s fiercest critics of the president’s immigration policies are not as aggressive as House Republicans when it comes to holding DHS’s funding hostage to their conservative policies, especially in light of heightened security following the French massacres and Belgian arrests. After all, this is the Department of Homeland Security. There may be some hope and light in the Senate, after all. Some GOP senators have referred to the House amendments as “the wish list for the far right wing.” Senator John Thune (R-SD), the no. 3 Republican in the Senate, said that these amendments give Republicans in the House a chance to publicly protest Obama’s actions, even if that’s all they do. Continuing this note – other GOP senators are advocating changes in immigration policy, albeit using a piecemeal approach, but want these policies separate from a DHS funding bill.

Other senators believe that if a DHS funding bill is passed without tackling the president’s immigration orders, another chance may not come. Obviously, there is no agreement on strategy.

As of this date, the House bill appears very unlikely to pass the Senate where it will be necessary to attract at least six Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to end debate. Since this is the case, Republican leaders will need to negotiate a watered-down bill that can earn some Democratic support, pass the Senate, and be sent back to the House before current homeland security funding ends. With no clear path forward, it seems likely that in the end, a clean bill funding DHS through September 2015 will eventually be offered to President Obama. If this happens, then many immigrant families who contribute to our communities and our economy will receive a modicum of the respect and dignity they deserve.

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