Miami Republican says spike in border crossings led to cutbacks for migrant children

As Democrats attack the Trump administration for cuts to legal aid, education and recreational activities at detention centers for migrant children around the country, a Miami Republican says a funding shortfall at the Department of Health and Human Services left the agency with no other choice.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s chief of staff said in an interview that a massive spike in border crossings in the past six months strained resources at the federal agency responsible for overseeing detention centers, including the largest one in the country in Homestead.

“The problem is that there’s no money,” said Cesar Gonzalez, Diaz-Balart’s chief of staff. “Do you provide food, housing or security or do you provide the other stuff?”

Gonzalez blamed House Democrats for not passing an additional HHS funding bill in recent weeks to provide more resources for migrant children. He said the agency is operating at capacity after 144,278 people were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in the month of May, including 11,507 unaccompanied children who typically end up in facilities like Homestead after crossing the border illegally.

The May 2019 total is nearly triple the amount of individuals detained at the border in May 2018, and a 32 percent increase from April 2019, when 109,474 people were detained. The past three months have each seen a record number of people apprehended at the border since 2014, according to statistics provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“If the Democrats are worried about classes and other stuff they’ve got to provide security and basic services for the kids,” Gonzalez said. “It’s hypocritical for them to be bashing the administration because the administration has no money because of the record numbers coming over.”

Diaz-Balart is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, the body responsible for federal funding requests, though he is not in charge of the subcommittee responsible for funding HHS.

On May 1, the Trump administration asked Congress for $2.88 billion in emergency funds and on May 17 the administration notified Congress that it anticipated a shortfall in funding for the agency’s Unaccompanied Alien Children program.

“HHS is seeking an emergency appropriation of $2.88 billion to increase shelter capacity in order to meet the needs of the minors in our custody while [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] works to find sponsors, usually family members, for the children,” said HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer. “This week, ORR instructed grantees to begin scaling back or discontinuing awards for UAC activities that are not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety, including education services, legal services, and recreation. Additional resources are urgently required to meet the humanitarian needs created by this influx — to both sustain critical child welfare and release operations and increase capacity.”

Miami Democrats Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Donna Shalala and Debbie Wasserman Schultz called for the Homestead detention center to close this week. The Homestead facility is run by a for-profit company, which counts former White House chief of staff John Kelly as a member of its board of advisers, and Democrats want the children transferred to other facilities that are run by non-profits.

Mucarsel-Powell also called on HHS Secretary Alex Azar to resign after the agency announced the funding cuts earlier this week.

“The Homestead child detention facility is a symbol of everything that is rotten with the Trump Administration: numerous children have died while in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement; basic necessities like education, exercise, and legal services have been cut; and a hurricane evacuation and relocation plan has not been developed or shared publicly in a region prone to natural disasters,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement.

Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Democrat in charge of HHS funds, said in a CNN interview this week that cutting off services to children “could be in violation of the law.”

Gonzalez said Diaz-Balart supports legal aid, recreational activities and education for children at detention centers but “when you have no money you’ve got to make choices.” Gonzalez said he’s unsure if Diaz-Balart is supportive of detention centers being run by for-profit companies like Homestead as opposed to non-profits or the government itself.

A spokesperson for Florida Sen. Rick Scott said he had not seen details of the proposal to cut funding at child detention centers but blamed Democrats for failing to fund border security.

“Senator Scott has been clear that we have a crisis at our border, but Democrats refuse to fix the problem and fund border security,” Scott spokesperson Chris Hartline said in a statement. “Senator Scott is not in favor of separating families at the border. Innocent children should not be paying the price for the Democrats’ inaction. Democrats need to come to the table now to secure the border and fix our long broken immigration system, including a permanent solution for DACA and TPS.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, who was among the first lawmakers to visit the Homestead facility after it opened last year, did not respond to a request for comment.