(This June 27 story corrects number of Democrats voting against the bill to 95 instead of 71 in 5th paragraph)
By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives backed down to President Donald Trump and passed a $4.6 billion aid package to address a migrant surge at the U.S.-Mexico border without the additional protections for migrant children that liberals had sought.
Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate and moderate Democrats insisted on finishing the emergency aid bill as soon as possible, without further haggling over demands for greater migrant safeguards and reduced immigration enforcement spending.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said shortly before the vote that her colleagues were giving up their fight for now over changes to the measure, which had already passed the Senate.
“At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available,” she said in a statement. “In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill.”
The House vote was 305 to 102, with 95 out of 235 House Democrats voting against the Senate bill. The measure was then sent to Republican Trump for signing into law.
Trump welcomed House passage of the “Bipartisan Humanitarian Aid Bill for the Southern Border,” saying, “A great job done by all!”
He also credited the Mexican government with doing more to curtail the flow of Central American migrants to the U.S. border.
Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration a centrepiece of his administration, but officials are saying a renewed crush of migrants at the border has strained resources.
A photo of two drowned migrants and reports of horrendous conditions for detained children have spurred efforts to craft compromise legislation to send to Trump before Congress adjourns this week for the Fourth of July U.S. holiday.
Pelosi and liberal Democrats had earlier planned to amend the Senate bill to set health standards for facilities holding migrants, establish a three-month limit for any child to spend at intake shelters and reduce spending for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
But with Congress headed for a recess, moderate Democrats joined the White House and Senate Republicans in urging Pelosi to accept the bill that had cleared the Senate with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, as good enough.
Additional pressure came from administration officials who said the money was running out and Congress had to act now.
In an apparent concession to help win over wavering Democrats, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence agreed in a telephone conversation with Pelosi that lawmakers would be notified within 24 hours after the death of a child held in U.S. custody at the border, a source familiar with the conversation said. Pence also agreed to a 90-day limit on how long children would be permitted to spend in a border intake facility.
Those two aspects were not part of the bill and have no force of law.
The episode was a blow to Pelosi and her leadership, and exposed the deep divide between moderates and liberals in her caucus.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wrote on Twitter that the bill was a “blank check for the border w NO accountability.” She added: “Trump is not to be trusted with protecting our immigrants. Why must that even be stated? We need hard lines of protection, in ink.”
Border apprehensions hit their highest level in more than a decade in May, creating chaotic scenes at overcrowded border patrol facilities. Many of the migrants are either children or families, mostly from Central America.
The conditions of children entering the country alone has become an issue in the 2020 presidential race. During a debate on Wednesday night, many of the Democratic contenders called for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws, and about 12 candidates were set to visit a Florida facility this week.
A photo of Salvadoran father Oscar Alberto Martinez and his toddler daughter Angie Valeria, who drowned together attempting to cross the Rio Grande, added urgency on both sides of the aisle to reach a funding deal.
Lawyers and human rights workers said they found sick and hungry children when they visited the Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas.
“Many had been detained for weeks, one even up to a month in really horrific conditions,” said Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Attorneys representing migrant children filed papers in federal court in Los Angeles on Wednesday asking that the U.S. government be held in contempt of court for “flagrant and persistent” violations of the terms of a 1997 agreement that governs the treatment of children in immigration detention. They requested immediate action be taken to remedy the “deplorable” conditions.
The renewed focus on conditions on the border has also galvanized opposition in recent days to a Trump administration policy that sends asylum seekers to some of Mexico’s most violent cities.
In an open letter to Trump and other political leaders, a coalition of evangelical churches said it was “deeply troubled” by the policy it said left children vulnerable to violence and trafficking, as well as by reports of “inhumane” conditions in U.S. federal immigration facilities.
The Catholic diocese of El Paso, Texas, separately denounced a critical lack of shelter, food, legal aid and basic services for asylum seekers returned to Mexico under the program and “distressing detention conditions” in the United States before they are returned.
In court papers filed on Wednesday, a union that represents asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, described the program as “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our nation,” citing the American tradition of sheltering the persecuted stretching back to the arrival of “Pilgrims onto a Massachusetts shore in November 1620.”
Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan; writing by Alistair Bell and Steve Gorman; editing by Kieran Murray and Grant McCool