But department leaders say those claims are baseless. And Democratic members of Congress argue the controversy is little more than an election year stunt designed to enrage veterans and conservative voters.
“They’re purposely dis-informing the public and trying to make them believe that money appropriated for veterans is being used on immigrants,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “And that’s just not true.”
The fight is likely to grow even more contentious in coming days, with a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on VA funding misuse scheduled for Jan. 17. Department officials will face questions about assistance provided for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations, a frequent target of Republican ire.
Last month, committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., introduced the No VA Resources for Illegal Aliens Act, which would prohibit the department from using any resources to provide any taxpayer-funded health care services to immigrants entering the country illegally.
“(President) Joe Biden’s failed border policies have created a humanitarian and national security crisis,” Bost said in a statement. “Now it appears he’s taking resources away from our veterans to facilitate healthcare for illegal migrants.”
But Veterans Affairs officials said those claims are a distortion of the facts. “VA does not provide or fund any health care to ICE detainees,” department press secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement responding to the GOP accusations.
Currently, ICE pays VA to help process payments for health care costs for immigrants in their custody. Fewer than 10 employees from VA’s Financial Service Center are tasked with the work as part of their other duties.
VA provides similar processing services to the Department of Defense, Surface Transportation Board, Indian Health Service, and Office of Refugee Resettlement. The department is reimbursed by all of the federal agencies for all costs and resources used, VA officials said.
The arrangement has been in place since 2002 and continued through multiple Democratic and Republican presidential administrations.
But it has come under scrutiny in recent months, as Republican lawmakers have attacked Biden’s immigration policies and the influx of migrants at the southern U.S. border.
In December, during a Senate leadership press conference, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said the arrangement forces veterans “to compete with illegal immigrants” for care. Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wisc. — a veteran and a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee — this week told the New York Post that the relationship between ICE and VA is “incredibly insulting to our veterans who risked our lives defending this nation.”
Takano called the criticism “intentional conflation and opportunistic messaging” by Republican lawmakers.
“There’s a lot of resentment already from some people who falsely think that the country spends more money on immigrants than on veterans,” he said. “So this is a volatile topic, ready-made to distort the facts about what is really happening here.”
But Bost defended the criticism of VA’s involvement in the immigration work.
“Our job is to make sure that no resources are being taken away from our veterans,” he said. “Anything that’s going to take away any services for our veterans is not acceptable.”
He said lawmakers only recently learned about the ICE contracting arrangement, despite its 21-year history. And he said that it may not be appropriate for VA to be giving ICE or any other agency processing assistance, given that it could directly or indirectly hurt services meant for veterans.
Hayes said the ICE work “has zero impact on veteran health care or benefits.” Recent increases in department medical and benefits workload are a result of toxic exposure legislation approved by Congress in 2022, not any changes in the immigration paperwork processing, he said.
“Our job is to deliver world-class care and benefits to our nation’s veterans, and we will continue to fight like hell to do exactly that,” he said.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.