House Democrats revealed the outlines of their border security counteroffer Wednesday, saying they will pump money into stopping drugs and providing care for illegal immigrants — including cutting the number of detention beds to hold them for deportation.
Democrats wouldn’t put a dollar figure on their proposal, so it’s not clear how it stacks up against President Trump’s $5.7 billion plan for a border wall.
All sides are locked in negotiations over a 2019 spending bill for the Homeland Security Department. They face a Feb. 15 deadline to reach a deal and avert another partial government shutdown.
Seventeen negotiators, split between Democrats and Republicans and the House and Senate, convened their first public meeting Wednesday. All sides said they hope they can reach a compromise, though the path to a deal was unclear.
Mr. Trump is willing to talk about big issues such as legal status for illegal immigrants and more humanitarian assistance for migrants who arrive at the border, but he says he must have some money for his border wall.
Democrats are looking at a much smaller deal and say they will have to talk about a wall eventually but it’s not in their plans.
“At the end, it’s going to be, ‘What do we do about the barrier?'” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, Texas Democrat. “We can get a little creative at the end. But right now, no wall.”
Instead, their plan would add 1,000 customs officers and more drug detection equipment at border crossings, more drones and boats to try to spot smugglers in the air and on sea, and better conditions to detain illegal immigrants caught jumping the border.
They said they will cut the number of detention beds to hold illegal immigrants in custody and instead use alternatives such as counseling programs, ankle monitoring devices or regular check-ins to try to track illegal immigrants.
The government is funded for a minimum of 40,520 detention beds. In 2018 it was above that level, with an average of 42,188 beds per day. In fiscal 2019, the tally is running even higher at an average of 45,670 beds per day.
The Senate Republicans’ plan, which mirrors Mr. Trump’s request, calls for 52,000 detention beds.
Democrats didn’t indicate what their target number for beds is but said the reduction would be “significant.”
Officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have said using alternatives to detention beds makes it more likely that illegal immigrants will abscond and disappear into the shadows.
One top ICE official testified to Congress last year that 30 percent of illegal immigrant families, now the majority of those caught at the border, cut off their monitoring devices within days of their arrests.
But Rep. Lucille Royal-Allard, one of the Democrats’ top negotiators, said the crisis at the border isn’t security but rather humanitarian, resulting from Homeland Security’s poor treatment of migrants.
“My proposal includes much-needed humanitarian aid and improved facilities for migrants taken into [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] custody to help prevent unnecessary deaths and health problems,” said Ms. Roybal-Allard, California Democrat.
Democrats said they plan to keep Homeland Security funding at the same $49.1 billion level that Congress agreed to last year, so any money for a wall would mean less for other priorities such as airport security agents and federal emergency workers.
“What we don’t want to do is arbitrarily make decisions that compromise other priorities,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, California Democrat.
Republicans said the talks are negotiations, and that means each side must compromise — including finding a middle ground on money for a wall.
“Obviously, our starting point is $5.7 billion,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, Tennessee Republican. “There’s really no assurances other than we’re going to meet and discuss, and that might be a better situation because so far it doesn’t appear that anybody is locked into a position.”
Border Patrol agents have said they think more fencing is helpful, and Homeland Security says it has sent to Capitol Hill plans for how and where to spend the money.
Democrats, while promising to respect “the experts,” said the short Feb. 15 deadline to reach a deal means they won’t be able to hold hearings or make a visit to the border to get input.
Mr. Trump said Wednesday that wall funding has to be part of the conversation.
“If the committee of Republicans and Democrats now meeting on Border Security is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!” he tweeted ahead of the lawmakers’ meeting.
The president has threatened another partial shutdown in a few weeks if the lawmakers’ package doesn’t include enough money for a wall.
He also has said he could declare a national emergency, which could enable the U.S. military to build the wall. Democrats have vowed to sue if the president takes that route.
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