House Democrats Cry Russia in Failed Effort to Derail Border Wall Funding

Republicans defeat attempt to divert federal dollars from immigration enforcement to polar icebreakers

Democrats in the House of Representatives on Tuesday made several attempts to strip increased immigration-enforcement funding from a homeland security funding bill, including a proposal to instead use the money to buy icebreakers.

But Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee defeated the Democratic amendments in a series of largely party-line votes and voted 30-22 to send the $44.3 billion bill to the full House. The vote leaves intact nearly $1.6 billion for President Donald Trump’s wall along the Mexican border and keeps $100 million to hire 500 more U.S. Border Patrol agents and $185.6 million to hire an additional 1,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

Democrats during the lengthy meeting argued that border security funds would be better spent to build new icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) argued that the $2.3 billion would be enough for two or three ships.

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Roybal-Allard agued that the funds are badly needed because the United States has only two icebreakers, both of which are aging and often out of service. The Polar Star, built in 1976, is the only heavy icebreaker.

“They’re not even bothering to pay lip service anymore to the notion that we should prevent illegal immigration.”

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Democrats also raised the specter of their boogeyman du jour — Russia, which Roybal-Allard said has 41 icebreakers in service or under construction.

“Just think what we could accomplish here today,” she said.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), her party’s ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, said “Russia simply has us beat when it comes to ice-breaking, vastly outperforming us on the construction of icebreakers and maintaining a significant presence in the polar region.”

Lowey said Republican priorities were misplaced.

“Instead of making this investment, the majority has chosen to spend billions of dollars on a border wall and implement draconian, draconian immigration policies,” she said. “Let’s stop fulfilling empty campaign promises and focus on where the real investment … is needed.”

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) blasted the “unnecessary and harmful border wall” and “excessive ICE hiring that is anticipated in this bill and the unneeded detention beds.”

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), the subcommittee’s chairman, said building more icebreakers is a worthy idea. But he said the Coast Guard would not be ready to spend the money until fiscal year 2019 at the earliest. He said icebreakers should not come at the expense of securing the border with Mexico. If migrants can exploit the porous border, he said, so can terrorists.

“Cutting funding from CBP [Customs and Border Protection] would leave our border open and threaten our national security,” he said. “Physical barriers on the border work and are necessary, as evidenced by a dramatic decline in apprehensions after the border security infrastructure was put in place and installed in the San Diego and Arizona area.”

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Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the Democrats’ posture at the hearing was consistent with the party’s recent immigration philosophy.

“They’re not even bothering to pay lip service anymore to the notion that we should prevent illegal immigration,” he said.

The Republicans beat back a number of other amendments, including:

1.) A proposal by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) to prohibit ICE from deporting the parents of American children. This would codify an executive order by former President Barack Obama that the current administration recently rescinded.

Serrano said when ICE deports illegal immigrants, their American children must choose to remain and lose contact with their parents or move to a foreign country. “Then they are de facto deported to a country they are likely unfamiliar with and forced to abandon their country, the United States … It is a lose-lose situation, and it should be our job to prevent this,” he said.

2.) A proposal by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) to define grandparents as “close family relationships” in order to prevent the Trump administration from enforcing its temporary travel ban on grandparents. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Texas) offered but then withdrew an amendment that would have prevented the government from enforcing Trump’s executive order, which she termed a “Muslim ban.”

3.) A proposal to give explicit authority to the secretary of homeland security to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protecting illegal immigrants brought to America as children. The Trump administration has left the Obama-era executive order in place, but Lowey said “mixed messages” from the administration demanded action from Congress. Roybal-Allard said it “would be the very definition of cruelty” to take away protections for so-called DREAMers. Carter argued that a spending bill was not the proper forum to take up the issue.

4.) A proposal by Price and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) to reduce what Price termed the “bloated funding for ICE enforcement” and use the money to instead hire more customs officers. In addition to using money earmarked to hire 1,000 ICE agents, they proposed eliminating funding to add 5,000 detention beds to the current 44,000 total.

Price said ICE staffing has nearly tripled since fiscal year 2003. He said $543 million should go to hire more customs officers, while $161 million should be used to beef up Homeland Security Investigations offices. Carter argued that failing to add detention space “will lead to increased border crossings as smugglers see that the rule of law no longer exits.

5.) A proposal by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) to redirect the $1.6 billion for an “unnecessary and impractical wall” to protecting “soft targets” and other programs.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) also criticized the wall, arguing that it is a “14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem” and could be overcome with a “$100 ladder.” He said he money should be spent on eliminating a $145 million maintenance backlog for Border Patrol facilities and to repair 63.2 miles of existing fencing.

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