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Democrats Fume Over Transfer of FEMA Money to ICE Before Hurricanes

Agency officials, some Republicans say funds could not be used for response

Sen. Jeff Merkley has released documents showing that nearly $10 million from FEMA’s budget was diverted to fund ICE’s detention facilities and deportation operations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Jeff Merkley has released documents showing that nearly $10 million from FEMA’s budget was diverted to fund ICE’s detention facilities and deportation operations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

On the eve of Hurricane Florence hitting the U.S. coast, Democratic lawmakers expressed outrage that the Homeland Security Department transferred nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a reprogramming move this summer.

Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office on Wednesday released documents confirming that $9.8 million from FEMA’s operations and support budget was diverted to fund ICE’s detention facilities and deportation operations.

The Oregon Democrat first discussed the DHS report on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Tuesday evening. DHS was allocating money from FEMA to ICE to fund “additional detention camps,” he said.

The DHS documents released by Merkley give this justification for the money reprogramming: “Without the transfers and reprogramming identified in this notification, ICE will not be able to fulfill its adult detention requirements in FY 2018. Insufficient funding could require ICE to release any new book-ins and illegal border violators. ICE will not be able to deport those who have violated immigration laws. ICE could also be forced to reduce its current interior enforcement operations, curtailing criminal alien and fugitive arrests — which would pose a significant risk to public safety and national security by permitting known offenders to remain at large.”

Watch: Capitol Hill Might Dodge Florence Direct Hit, But Watch for Flooding

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DHS did not deny the funds reprogramming, but was insistent that no funds were cut from the part of FEMA’s budget that would aid in hurricane disaster relief.

“Under no circumstances was any disaster relief funding transferred from @fema to immigration enforcement efforts. 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,” Tyler Q. Houlton, DHS spokesman, said on Twitter on Wednesday.

DHS pointed out that the money transferred from FEMA to ICE is less than 1 percent of FEMA’s budget, which was originally $1.03 billion for 2018.

“The money in question — transferred to ICE from FEMA’s routine operating expenses — could not have been used for hurricane response due to appropriation limitations,” Houlton said. “DHS/FEMA stand fiscally and operationally ready to support current and future response and recovery needs.”

Merkley has long criticized President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including the “zero tolerance” initiative that separated more than 2,500 children from parents arriving at the southern border seeking entry into the United States.

“This is a scandal,” Merkley, said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”

“It wasn’t enough to rip thousands of children out of the arms of their parents — the administration chose to partly pay for this horrific program by taking away from the ability to respond to damage from this year’s upcoming and potentially devastating hurricane season,” he continued.

Republicans, however, said that Merkley was trying to politicize something that should be above politics and that the whole issue was overblown.

“Right now about all I’m doing when I think about FEMA is thinking about the potential impact of the current hurricane; we’re still recovering from Hurricane Matthew,” Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said in an interview Wednesday. “We’ll take a look at it and see if it was an appropriate use of funds, but when you’re talking about hurricane impacts and the billions of dollars, what we’re trying to do now is focus on making sure that there are resources available for communities to recover and then maybe get to a better place where they can withstand future storms.”

Tillis’ office later issued a statement later criticizing Merkley. “Hurricane Florence is expected to bring historic flooding and massive devastation to the Carolinas, and Senator Tillis is focused on making sure North Carolinians stay safe and that we have the federal resources needed to respond and recover,” the statement read. “FEMA officials have already stated that no money was transferred from disaster accounts, despite the misleading and distractive narrative being pushed. Any elected official who attempts to politicize this storm to further their own partisan agenda and personal political ambitions should be ashamed of themselves.”

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who met with FEMA officials on Wednesday, said he did not get a chance to ask them about the $10 million in reprogrammed funds, but said “the money should not be diverted.”

“Look, we have to come in and ask for more monies for FEMA at year end because the emergencies always cause them to need more resources. We shouldn’t be diverting into other accounts. We’ll get an answer to that question,” he said.

Other Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees FEMA, also weighed in on the matter.

“This is yet another example of the Trump administration’s outrageously misplaced homeland security priorities. We have a president who cares more about locking up families seeking asylum and putting kids in cages than ensuring FEMA has every resource necessary to prepare for and respond to disasters,” Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, ranking member of the committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

FEMA officials insist they are prepared for Hurricane Florence — which is heading toward Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina — and for storms in the Pacific heading to Hawaii and Guam.

“It takes more than FEMA to respond to storms of this magnitude,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long said in a statement Tuesday. “The federal government has people and supplies in Guam, Hawaii, and along the East coast from South Carolina to Pennsylvania, but this will take all levels of government, the private sector, and individuals.”

Hurricane Florence is expected to make landfall in the Carolinas late Thursday or Friday, potentially as a Category 4 storm. It has already caused thousands of people to evacuate from their homes because of possible flooding.

Griffin Connolly contributed to the report.

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