The federal government will run out of money to deal with the influx of Central American children crossing the U.S. border illegally this summer if lawmakers fail to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funds, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told a Senate panel Thursday.
Meanwhile, federal officials planned to assess a former Army Reserve site in Westminster as a possible shelter for some of the children, according to a document obtained by The Baltimore Sun. The Obama administration has considered — and rejected — three other sites in Maryland.
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, administration officials warned that if the number of children crossing the border continued at the rate seen earlier this year, agencies would run out of shelter space, forcing more of the children to be held in detention facilities designed for adults.
"Doing nothing is not an option," Johnson said.
The revelation that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would run out of money to address the influx by August came days after the White House requested a significant increase for the rest of the year. The appeal set off a broader debate over how the United States should deal with what the administration and others describe as a humanitarian crisis.
"What are we going to send them back to?" asked Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee "It's not like Juan Valdez is going to greet them at the airport with roses."
Mikulski said that she visited the border last week to review the situation.
With roughly 250 children entering the country each day, Johnson said, his department anticipates apprehending about 90,000 children by the end of the fiscal year in September. Some 57,000 have crossed the southwestern border since October, with most coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
As the government seeks to expand shelter space, the Department of Health and Human Services and the General Services Administration were set to conduct an initial assessment of a former Army Reserve Center in Westminster.
Federal officials have considered several sites in Maryland as potential shelters for hundreds of children, including a former orphanage in Prince George's County and a 1.1 million-square-foot office building in Baltimore that was vacated by the Social Security Administration.
Amid mounting opposition, including from Mikulski and Sen. Ben Cardin, the administration dropped those ideas.
Republicans — and some Democrats — voiced frustration on Thursday that the Obama administration had not formally requested a change to a 2008 law to allow officials to deport some of the immigrants more quickly.
Some lawmakers were moving toward giving the White House that authority as a condition of support for the additional spending.
The 2008 law allows the government to quickly turn back minors from Mexico and Canada, but provides additional legal protections for those who come from countries that do not border the United States.
Johnson said Thursday that the White House supports changing the law to treat immigrants from all countries in the same way.
Though the idea met with resistance from some Democrats, congressional leaders of both parties left the door open to a compromise on the funding bill that hinged on giving the government the new authority.
"We would probably want the language similar to what we have with Mexico," House Speaker John Boehner said.
Boehner has called on lawmakers to act this month — before they are scheduled to take a recess in August — but was not specific about what should be included in the legislation.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, said he would not necessarily block an effort to change the 2008 law if it were attached to the president's underlying funding request.
"Let's see what comes to the floor," he said.
It's not clear that changing the current law, by itself, would smooth the dicey political prospects for the president's funding request. Just weeks ago, House Republicans stalled efforts at a broader immigration overhaul earlier this year, saying they didn't trust Obama to enforce the laws already in place.
And some Democrats, including Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said changing the law would undermine the government's ability to protect children who might otherwise be eligible to seek asylum.
"There's danger in flexibility," Harkin said. "We can't hold ourselves up … as some [paragon] of human rights protection in the United States and then say 'Round 'em up and ship 'em back.'"
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina pressed Johnson on why the administration is not checking the legal status of the relatives in the United States with whom the children are placed while awaiting a deportation hearing.
Placing children with immigrants who are in the country illegally, he said, all but guarantees they won't appear in immigration court for their hearing.
"You're reinforcing bad behavior," Graham said. "The best way to stop this is to send the kids back."