Immigration Politics Bog Down Humanitarian Funds for Migrants

  • Communities, groups seek federal funds to manage arrivals
  • Lawmakers debate if money would help or intensify border woes

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Immigration policy debates are clouding the prospect of fresh funding for nonprofits and local agencies the federal government depends on to feed and shelter migrants.

Aid workers and border communities, backed by the White House and some lawmakers, are pushing Congress to use a stopgap budget bill to shore up an account that reimburses local agencies and organizations that care for border-crossers released by the Department of Homeland Security.

The funds “are crucial to this new reality that we have at the border, which is that people are coming, they need to be released, they need short-term help that is not in detention,” said Yael Schacher, director of the Americas and Europe for Refugees International.

The funding, offered through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, is one of several potential add-ons lawmakers are weighing as they hash out a deal to keep the government running as fiscal 2023 begins next month. Democrats are leading the push for the humanitarian account, while Republicans appear split. The text of the continuing resolution is likely to be released next week.

Migrant care has garnered closer attention in recent weeks and months as Florida and Texas governors send some people to Washington, D.C., New York, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and other liberal-leaning areas that hadn’t planned for a sudden influx of humanitarian needs. The communities, as well as those along the southern border, are eligible for Emergency Food and Shelter Program grants.

Cities Faced With Migrant Influx Costs Could Win Federal Aid

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Migrants from Central and South America wait after being dropped off near Vice President Kamala Harris’s Washington residence Sept. 15, 2022. Texas Governor Greg Abbott dispatched buses carrying them from the southern border to Harris’s home.

“You will have nonprofit providers shutting down or shutting down part of their services at the border and in cities across the country if we don’t put this anomaly in,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Tuesday, referring to the budget mechanism that would add the funding. Murphy leads DHS appropriations in the Senate.

At least one top Republican, Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) has voiced support for reinforcing the program. Others have scoffed at the request, saying the scramble for resources is a product of border security policies they consider far too lax.

The Biden administration should be looking for ways to deter migration “instead of asking for more money for more people to come,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the top Republican overseeing DHS’s budget, said Tuesday. “So yeah, I got a problem with that.”

US officials have recorded more than 2 million migrant encounters at the US-Mexico border this fiscal year, a new high.

‘It’s Our Job’

Nongovernmental groups that provide aid to migrants say they feel caught in the middle of a political showdown that’s detached from reality.

“They’re hungry and they need shelter and they’re here in the moment,” Catholic Charities USA Executive Vice President Brian Corbin said of migrants. “It’s our job as NGOs to respond to human need.”

The Emergency Food and Shelter Program, administered by DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, has existed for decades to help communities care for people experiencing homelessness.

Congress passed legislation (Public Law 116-26) in 2019, signed by then-President Donald Trump, to add a $30 million account for humanitarian assistance for migrants released by DHS to live in the US legally while their immigration cases are pending. The humanitarian offshoot of the program has since received funding through other legislation, including $150 million in the fiscal 2022 appropriations law.

About $85 million remained in the account as of July, but increasing requests from cities dealing with unexpected migrant arrivals threatened to exhaust the funding, a group of House Democrats warned in a Sept. 9 letter. They urged appropriators to add $50 million to the program in a stopgap funding bill.

Cornyn said he’s generally supportive of providing more money for humanitarian aid for migrants, though he said he’s not involved in current talks on the proposal.

“The federal government couldn’t deal with this crisis without the NGOs helping,” he said. “They didn’t create the problem, and they are trying to help.”

But funneling money to border needs is a point of frustration for many Republicans, who instead want President Joe Biden to return to many of the immigration policies of his predecessor: continuing border wall construction, forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are reviewed, and applying pandemic-related restrictions more aggressively.

Border Supplemental Floated as Democrats Fracture on Immigration

“It’s not the answer to our immigration problem, it’s not just more money,” Rob Portman (Ohio), top Republican on the Senate panel that oversees DHS, said of the emergency funding push.

To many border communities and aid groups, Congress is the problem. Lawmakers have repeatedly failed to pass comprehensive immigration overhaul, allowing the situation at the border to become more and more challenging, said Monica Weisberg-Stewart, immigration and border security chairwoman for the Texas Border Coalition, a network of local governments and business leaders.

“What do they recommend to be done with the individuals who are sitting on the doorsteps of these cities and counties?” she said. “It’s inhumane to not offer the help that is needed.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at; Sarah Babbage at

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