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Sen. Patrick Leahy On Providing Emergency Border Aid

Sen. Patrick Leahy seated on Capitol Hill
Patrick Semansky
Associated Press File
Sen. Patrick Leahy, pictured here on Capitol Hill on May 2, joins "Vermont Edition" to share his thoughts on what the United States can do to improve conditions for migrant children being held in detention centers after crossing the U.S. southern border.

The conditions for migrant children being held in detention centers after crossing the U.S. southern border has become a major concern for many Americans.

There are a lot of policy decisions to be discussed that have contributed to the current conditions, and both philosophical and practical differences that people of various political persuasions hold. But most agree that the situation is untenable as it stands now.
Sen. Patrick Leahy was a co-sponsor, with Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, of a $4.6 billion emergency appropriation funding bill to address the southern border situation.

"America should be a safe place, and it beckons to others," Leahy told Vermont Edition Tuesday. "I've talked with many, many of these immigrants, those who have come here — including some who have been detained. The stories they tell are horrible. They're not coming here to take jobs away from us; they're trying to protect their families."

Below are some excerpts from the conversation. Listen to the extended interview above.

On visiting the southern border

"I wish some of them [members of the Trump administration], some of the people like Stephen Miller at the White House … come and see some of the things I’ve seen," Leahy said. "I've gone down there, I’ve spent days on the border. I’ve gone into these rooms: cages holding children."

Leahy said that he’s actually been able to talk with children at the border detention centers, via translator.

"We've written into this [bill], into the Shelby-Leahy bill, that they have to allow members of Congress; they can't deny them going in there. ... I think it's a mistake not to allow people to come in, journalists," Leahy said. "I know that the people with me, I had a professional staff from the appropriations committee with me, and I told them to feel free to explain everything that happened."

More on what's in the appropriation funding bill

A few things that Leahy said are part of the bill include:

  • No funding for President Donald Trump's proposed border wall
  • "No funding for ICE detention beds" (which is different from Homeland Security detention beds). Leahy clarified that the bill makes sure kids have beds and that there are standards.
  • Alternative options where children can stay; "for want of a better word, foster homes"
  • 30 additional immigration judge teams

"We put in my bill $979 million for processing facilities, food, medical services and safe transportation; $109 million extra for just specifically for children," Leahy said. "We put in millions of dollars to fund alternatives to keeping them in custody and to bring in some of the groups, some of the faith groups and civic-minded groups, who are willing to help — they just don't have the funding. We're going to give them the funding. But then ultimately we've got to go back and work on what is causing this migration."

The status of the appropriations bill

The bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 30-1 vote in June. It subsequently passed the full Senate and the House.

Leahy said now oversight is needed to ensure the funds are dispersed in a way that reflects the bill's intent.

What Leahy would like to see in an immigration bill

In response to those who say immigration itself isn't the problem, but rather immigration through illegal means, Leahy said: "Well then set up better immigration channels. … We have put in a whole lot of money for that, but it also is the job of the administration which has to determine how they want to spend it."

Leahy referenced the Senate's passage of an immigration bill a few years ago that went nowhere in the House, as well as current White House adviser Stephen Miller's sentiments on immigration.

"I think we've probably reached a tipping point and people realize we're going to have to pass a real immigration bill," Leahy said, "but then we've got to address some of the problems that bring these people here."

When pressed on specifics for what he’d want in that bill, Leahy highlighted a desire to:

  • Give young people affected by DACA, known as Dreamers, "a real path to citizenship."
  • Implement "sensible" change in the visa program for dairy workers
  • Improve the ability for students from other countries to be able to stay and work in the U.S.

Broadcast live on Tuesday, July 2, 2019; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Ric was a producer for Vermont Edition and host of the VPR Cafe.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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