U.S. House votes to bar use of public lands for housing migrants

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Thursday passed a bill to bar the use of public lands for temporary housing for migrants applying for asylum.

The bill, H.R. 5283, passed with a majority of Republicans in support, 224-203

Six Democrats voted with Republicans: Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas, Don Davis of North Carolina, Jared Golden of Maine, Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Mary Peltola of Alaska and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington.

It’s dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority, and many Democrats criticized the bill as a messaging tactic for the 2024 elections, where hard-line immigration policies are the cornerstone of the GOP platform.

The Senate is currently negotiating a $14 billion request from the White House for U.S. border security.

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“The mission of the National Park Service is to conserve the natural and cultural resources for the enjoyment of future generations, not bail out the failed border policies of the Biden administration,” the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, said during debate Wednesday.

The push for the bill comes after the Biden administration granted New York City officials’ request to build temporary housing and facilities for migrant families at Floyd Bennett Field in Southeastern Brooklyn.

The bill prohibits this type of action from land under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Forest Service.

It also revokes a 2023 lease between the National Park Service and New York City to use portions of the Gateway National Recreation Area to provide housing for migrants.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis of New York, said that New York City’s decision to house migrant families on public land is “encouraging people to take that treacherous journey instead of applying (for asylum) from the next safe country.”

Migrants in NYC

This is not the first time House Republicans have passed legislation in response to New York City’s handling of migrants in its city.

In July, House Republicans passed a bill to bar the use of public K-12 school facilities to provide shelter for migrants seeking asylum. That bill, which will also go nowhere in the Senate, was in response to a May decision by New York City officials to convert several current and former school gyms to temporarily house about 300 migrants.

The top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, said the bill voted on Thursday to bar the use of public lands to temporarily house migrants was a “political stunt that will invite even more hateful anti-immigration rhetoric from the extreme MAGA wing of the Republican Party.”

During the House Rules Committee meeting on the public lands bill Tuesday, Republicans argued that the area used to house migrants at Floyd Bennett Field  posed a danger to Americans who live nearby because there are single adult men in the temporary structures. However, a majority of migrants staying at Floyd Bennett Field are families.

About 500 people are currently living at Floyd Bennett Field for up to 60 days, but it can house up to 2,000 people, according to the lease agreement. As temperatures drop in New York City, there’s concern that the plastic tents will not be warm enough for those families, THE CITY reported.

Minnesota Republican Rep. Pete Stauber said the bill is needed because “Republicans are taking action to address our Southern border crisis, because the Biden administration has failed to do so.”

Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, said the bill does not help cities dealing with newly arrived migrants. She said a big issue is that because of the current asylum law, migrants have to wait six months before they are authorized to work.

Pingree advocated for her legislation, which would cut that waiting period to 30 days so that migrants aren’t spending six months relying “on social safety nets to survive.”

The Biden administration recently redesignated the Temporary Protected Status for nearly half a million Venezuelan nationals, which allows them to work in the U.S. The September decision came after multiple requests from cities that have struggled to house asylum seekers and calls from Democratic lawmakers to redesignate TPS for those Venezuelan nationals.

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bob Menendez said that Republicans were vilifying families seeking refuge.

“This bill has no purpose other than to score cheap political points for House Republicans,” he said.

Republican Rep. Juan Ciscomani of Arizona, who came to the U.S. as an immigrant when he was a child and later became a naturalized citizen, argued that New York City’s decision would encourage migrants to make the long and dangerous journey to the U.S.

“This is no way to treat immigrants seeking asylum,” Ciscomani said.

National parks and citizens

House Republicans argued that national parks should be solely for the use of  American citizens.

“Americans shouldn’t be denied access to national parks and lands paid for by their tax dollars because of this administration’s destructive immigration policies,” Rep. Jen Kiggans, Republican of Virginia, said.

However, national parks are not limited to use for only American citizens, as there is no citizenship requirement to enter a park and millions of international visitors attend national parks each year. 

Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin said that he was concerned about the damage that can be done to a national park by using it to temporarily house people.

He said he wants the bill passed to ensure that “the public lands we all cherish are not transformed into squatting grounds.”

Amendments considered

Lawmakers voted on two amendments to the bill, one from Tennessee Republican Rep. Andy Ogles and another from New York Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez.

The amendment from Ogles would require the U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture to submit a report to Congress on the number of immigrants who were housed on federal lands.

“This amendment requires accountability,” Ogles said.

Grijalva said the amendment was unnecessary because the bill, if passed into law, would ban migrants from being temporarily housed on federal lands.

“It’s a permanent requirement for reporting on nothing, paid for by the taxpayer,” he said.

The amendment passed by a voice vote.

The other amendment, by Velázquez, would allow the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to provide housing for migrants under certain criteria.

They would include when the original state those migrants came to has transferred them to another state; the original state has funded that transportation; the original state has not given 48 hours of notice to the governor of the destination state; and if the original state failed to give those migrants accurate information on the conditions of the state they are being transferred to.

That amendment is in response to Republican governors, especially Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who have sent buses of migrants to cities such as New York, often without warning local officials.

Abbott has also sent buses to Washington, D.C., dropping off migrants, 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.

The Velázquez amendment failed, 206 to 223.

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