Immigrants wait overnight next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence to seek asylum in the United States on Jan. 7, 2023, as viewed from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (John Moore/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Wednesday night passed a bill to bar the use of public K-12 school facilities to provide shelter for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.
The bill, approved 222-201 with a yes vote from Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, is known as the “Schools Not Shelters Act” and is a rebuke of the Biden administration’s immigration policy.
If enacted into law, public schools and public higher education institutions would risk losing federal funding if they provide shelter to migrants who have not been admitted into the country.
The bill, H.R. 3941, is likely to die in the Senate, where Democrats have a slim majority. The White House also issued a statement on Wednesday that vowed President Joe Biden would veto the bill should Congress pass it because it “would supersede local control, interfering with the ability of States and municipalities to effectively govern and make decisions about their school buildings.”
“The bill would do this by prohibiting certain educational institutions that receive Federal funding … from using their facilities to shelter noncitizens seeking asylum in the United States, as such noncitizens are permitted to do under the law,” the White House said.
The House in late June passed a resolution that condemned the use of elementary and secondary schools to provide shelter for immigrants not admitted into the U.S. All Republicans present and seven Democrats voted for the resolution, 223-201.
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Migrants bused from Texas
Wednesday’s bill, introduced by Republican Marc Molinaro of New York, stems from a May decision by New York City officials to convert several current and former school gyms to temporarily house about 300 migrants.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has sent buses of migrants to several sanctuary cities such as Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia as political statements, often without communicating with the local governments about their arrival.
Abbott has also sent buses to Washington, D.C., dropping off migrants, sometimes in the cold and without proper clothing, outside the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been tasked by Biden to address the root causes of migration along the Southern border.
Democrats during debate on the House floor on Tuesday and during a House Rules Committee hearing on Monday said that the bill does not address school safety such as gun violence, which is the leading cause of death for children in America, and that Republicans were focusing on “culture war” issues.
Republicans said that the bill is meant to ensure student safety and that public facilities should not be used to house migrants.
The chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, Virginia Foxx, told the Rules Committee the measure “sends a full throated message to the Biden administration” that education facilities should be used only for education purposes.
“The academic success and safety of students should always be put first, no exceptions,” Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, said.
The top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, called the bill “deeply unserious,” and said what Congress should be doing is directing funds to help states and local governments set up shelters and care for migrants.
The bill has an exemption for short-term sheltering, such as a disaster declaration made by the state or federal government. An amendment from Republican Rep. Andy Ogles of Tennessee defined “short term” as no more than 72 hours. It was the only amendment adopted by a voice vote during Tuesday’s floor debate on the bill.
The bill also applies to schools in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
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The top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, Bobby Scott of Virginia, said the bill “gives people the opportunity to disparage immigrants,” and does nothing to address the epidemic of school shootings.
“This Congress, House Republicans have focused entirely on culture wars,” he said.
This year, the House passed a bill to bar transgender girls from competing in school sports that align with their gender identity and passed another bill that many Democrats argued would lead to book bans, but Republicans called it a “Parents Bill of Rights.”
Republican Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina during the committee meeting criticized the Biden administration for its immigration policy and pushed back against Democrats’ argument that the shelter bill is inhumane.
“What’s illegal, inhumane, is what this Biden administration is doing,” he said. “There is no wall being built.”
Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania, who has worked as an immigration attorney and represented asylum seekers, argued that migrants admitted into the U.S. are “under some status,” such as those who are seeking asylum and have pending cases.
Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado said the bill was a “back door” to defunding public education, but Foxx disagreed.
“We’re going to withdraw funds if you break the law,” Foxx said.
Neguse asked her if she supported getting rid of the Department of Education because she voted on an amendment earlier this year that would abolish the agency.
“If the Lord put me in charge, I would get the federal government out of education in a heartbeat,” she said.
New York City criticized
During Tuesday’s floor debate, the sponsor of the bill, Molinaro, said schools should be used “for a single purpose.”
“They are not shelters,” he said. “Our kids have already lost too much, and schools should be used for the purposes of educating and empowering kids in our neighborhoods.”
He called out New York City for being a sanctuary city.
“The city of New York chose, chose to declare that schools within New York City could be used as shelters,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in this position if the city of New York worked affectively to address the crisis within the city.”
Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has also considered using empty dorms on the State University of New York campuses, which has drawn criticism from Republicans.
Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon said the bill was cruel and the continuation of a trend to “delegitimize public schools.”
“It would punish public schools and colleges and their students for showing humanity,” she said.
She also questioned how the law would even be put in place, especially during an emergency.
“What would public schools have to do? Check everyone for citizenship before offering shelter to those in need?” she said, adding that if schools did that and lost federal funding, “that hurts all students.”
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