WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s controversial “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has a weak spot: It is using the Defense Department as a crutch to cover shortfalls in prosecutors, in detention facilities and in enforcement personnel.
Now House Democrats hope to exploit that vulnerability with a slew of proposed amendments—for the $675 billion defense appropriation bill expected to receive floor consideration this week—aimed at rebuffing Trump’s plans.
Of the 130-plus amendments proposed, a handful hope to block cooperation between the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Health and Human Services. The Rules Committee is set to begin screening amendments on Monday night.
The legislation comes amid an uproar over the Trump administration’s plan to prosecute each person caught illegally crossing the border and to separate children and parents who crossed the border together. The president reversed course on child separations last week, but chaos and confusion has continued to dog the policy’s implementation.
To supplement a gap in DHS’s detention facilities, the Pentagon plans to build temporary detention camps for as many as 20,000 immigrants, on military installations. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is also answering an urgent call from the Justice Department to send 21 judge advocates to help prosecute misdemeanor immigration cases.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and 27 other lawmakers have cosponsored an amendment to prevent the Pentagon from fulfilling any requests from the Department of Health and Human Services in regards to the care or custody of an unaccompanied child, including those separated from their parents at the border.
“I’m advancing an amendment to restrict the Trump Admin [from] housing these children on military bases,” Doggett said Sunday on Twitter, adding: “We will keep raising our voices to defend these young, distraught children and their mothers.”
One amendment from Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Peter Welch, D-Vt., would bar funds from helping, coordinating or building facilities on DoD lands to hold unaccompanied immigrant children. While another from Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., would also bar funds for family immigration detention on DoD property.
Outside the defense spending bill debate, at least one Republican on the House Armed Services Committee is also resisting a reported plan for a Navy-run migrant camp in his district, calling it “misguided.”
“Housing anyone in tents on the Gulf Coast during the heat of summer and the heart of hurricane season would be inhumane and a major mistake. I am committed to working with our local officials to fight back against this misguided idea,” said Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne, the seapower sub-panel’s vice-chair, told AL.com.
“The whole issue just underscores why it is so important we secure our borders and crack down on illegal immigration.”
New York Democratic Reps. José Serrano and Joseph Crowley offered an amendment to block the Pentagon from detailing employees to the Department of Justice to assist with the prosecution of federal immigration laws.Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Was., have sponsored similar measures.
Jayapal, on the heels of a visit with asylum-seekers at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, Wash., said they were improperly being treated as criminals. She called the zero-tolerance policy “cruel and inhumane.”
Before the furor over child separations, as many as 4,000 guardsmen were authorized in April to deploy to the U.S.-Mexico border to support the Department of Homeland Security, in line with a presidential memorandum. Some lawmakers are targeting that as well.
HASC Vice Ranking Member Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, offered an amendment that would bar any National Guard or other reserve component from enforcing immigration laws. HASC member Anthony Brown, D-Md., and Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., offered similar amendments.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.