Last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding bill for fiscal year 2019 (starting October 1, 2018) out of committee. Appropriations bills are often called “must pass legislation,” meaning Congress needs to pass these bills to keep the government funded and running. As a result, members of Congress may attempt to utilize an appropriations bill as a vehicle to push through a controversial bill or smaller policy amendment (“rider”). Although we didn’t really see those types of “riders” this past week, we did see many amendments – Republicans and Democrats offered up for vote a whopping 40 amendments.
In terms of funding, the bill does contain some nonstarters. These include $5 billion to fund 200 miles of border wall – $2.2 billion more than what was requested by the White House; funding for 44,000 detention beds – nearly 3,500 more than the current number; and 400 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. But on the positive side, Congressman David Price (D-NC) offered an amendment that would essentially block the implementation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ opinion on Matter of A-B-, and it passed.
Following the AG’s opinion and the implementing memos from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the ICE Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA), there has been deep concern that access to asylum for people with domestic violence and gang-based violence claims would be severely restricted or even shut out of the process. While the USCIS memorandum does not absolutely rule out such claims, it instructs officers to grant relief sparingly in these cases by stating, “Officers should be alert that under the standards clarified in Matter of A-B-, few gang-based or domestic-violence claims involving particular social groups defined by the members’ vulnerability to harm may merit a grant of asylum or refugee status.” This sweeping directive prejudges entire categories of social group claims—those based on domestic violence or gang violence—and directly conflicts with the requirement that asylum officers and immigration judges evaluate proposed social groups on a case-by-case basis.
Representative Price’s thoughtful amendment, which passed with no real objection by voice vote, would prevent the use of funds to implement the directives found in these memos. This amendment gives real hope that both sides of the aisle will stop the administration’s rollback of asylum law, which if allowed to go forward, will inevitably result in the return of the world’s most vulnerable families and individuals to life-threatening persecution.
The stakes are high, and the appropriations process is far from over. There will be opportunity for this amendment to be stripped out of the bill as the process moves forward, but we must keep pressure on both sides of the aisle to block those attempts. Already, Congressman Kevin Yoder (R-KS), Chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Appropriations, and the rest of the committee, have caught a lot of flak for this amendment from some conservative news outlets. Representative Yoder will be one to watch as the process continues, and one who should be the subject of extensive outreach. While Representative Yoder did say that domestic violence “should be a factor in an asylum claim” during the hearing, he now appears to be walking back his position, and is now expressing “legitimate concerns” about the proposal.
But for now, let’s celebrate the dent Representative Price’s amendment has put in the deportation machine while we continue to advocate on behalf of vulnerable asylum seekers fleeing domestic and gang-based violence.