The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reallocated funds for use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for hurricanes and natural disaster relief to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in order to pay for additional detention centers and removal operations, according to a document released by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon last week. Merkley released the thirty-nine-page document to The Washington Post as Hurricane Florence approached the East Coast. The document notes a transfer of funds, originally meant for efforts including “Preparedness and Protection” and “Response and Recovery,” that was transferred to ICE for detention beds, transportation, and removal programs. “At the start of hurricane season – when American citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are still suffering from FEMA’s inadequate recovery efforts – the administration transferred millions of dollars away from FEMA. And for what? To implement their profoundly misguided ‘zero-tolerance’ policy,” Merkley says.
While it is unclear when the transfers took place exactly, the “Transfer and Reprogramming” document refers to the Fiscal Year 2018 and was created in late June. The document specifically notes that without the transfer, “ICE will not be able to fulfill its adult detention requirements in FY 2018.” DHS also notes that without adequate funding, the agency could be prevented from deporting those in violation of the country’s immigration laws. It would also require the agency to “release any new book-ins and illegal border violators,” to “reduce its current interior enforcement operations,” and to limit “criminal alien and fugitive arrests.” The agency cited reasons of public safety and national security for the ten-million-dollar transfer.
In response to Merkley’s release of this document, Tyler Q. Houlton, a spokesperson for DHS, denied on Twitter that DHS transferred funds from FEMA’s disaster relief accounts to ICE. “This is a sorry attempt to push a false agenda at a time when the administration is focused on assisting millions on the East Coast facing a catastrophic disaster,” Houlton says. Houlton also adds that the money that was transferred from FEMA was not money that could have been used for hurricane relief efforts due to “appropriation limitations.” In an email, the agency further explains that funds that were taken from FEMA’s accounts amounted to less than one percent of their total operational accounts. The money was taken from funds used to pay for employee travel expenses, training, office supplies, and more. According to the agency, FEMA’s disaster relief funding is a separate account consisting of twenty-five billion dollars. “DHS/FEMA stand fiscally and operationally ready to support current and future response and recovery needs,” Houlton adds.
The document’s release comes shortly after President Trump made comments about FEMA’s response to the hurricane that left nearly 3,000 people dead in Puerto Rico last year, and thousands without electricity, calling the relief efforts an “unsung success.” An after-action report, however, released by FEMA this past July reveals that the agency severely underestimated how much food and water the island would need, as well as how difficult it would be to get these supplies to the island. The report notes the initial response to the devastation in Puerto Rico as “chaotic and disorganized and plagued with logistical problems,” according to The New York Times.
Former DHS and FEMA officials have disputed claims that the money transferred to ICE wouldn’t have been used for hurricane relief efforts. They believe that the funds are indeed essential to FEMA’s storm preparation and response, even if they are not distinctly marked for “disaster relief.” “Anyone who knows FEMA knows it’s parsing words,” Moira Whelan, former chief of staff in the Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding at DHS’s National Joint Information Center, tells The Washington Post. Critics of the funds transfer believe it was only to further Trump’s harsh immigration policies. Senator Merkley says: “Clearly they were saying, ‘If we’re going to start arresting, as a criminal matter, and detaining people, we need to have much bigger detention camps; oh well, we better get some more money to do that.”