Homeland Security and Senator Spar Over Moving Funds from FEMA to Immigrant Detention

A flag warns against swimming in Nags Head, N.C., as Hurricane Florence approaches. A flag warns against swimming in Nags Head, N.C., as Hurricane Florence approaches. Gerry Broome / AP

With Hurricane Florence headed for landfall in the Carolinas, an Oregon senator on Tuesday night accused the Homeland Security Department of inappropriately transferring $10 million from disaster response to detention centers needed for the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” unveiled a document known as a “Transfer and Reprogramming” notification, as reported by The Washington Post and the Huffington Post, calling the shift in funds a scandal.

“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,” Merkley said in a statement. “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.”

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According to Merkley, more than $2.3 million from the total shift of around $9.8 million came out of FEMA’s “response and recovery” budget. The rest was diverted from regional operations, mitigation efforts, preparedness and protection, and mission support budgets.

DHS spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton strongly disagreed. “Under no circumstances was any disaster relief funding transferred from @fema to immigration enforcement efforts,” he said in a statement provided to Government Executive. He said the money that went to Immigration and Customs Enforcement came from routine operating expenses “that could not have been used for hurricane response due to appropriations limitations.” 

Houlton added: “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. DHS/FEMA stand fiscally and operationally ready to support current and future response and recovery needs.”

DHS officials characterize the $9.8 million in question as being available from the operations account because management expenses came in under budget due to savings in employee travel, training, basic purchase cards, office supplies and headquarters overhead. That money would have expired by Sept. 30, they added, and represents less than 1 percent of FEMA’s operational account.

FEMA’s current disaster response/recovery account currently contains $25 billion, the agency said, stating that the “mission-impact” on FEMA response of the transfer is zero.

Another DHS spokesperson tweeted that “after calling @SenJeffMerkley staff to inform them of the facts surrounding @FEMA budget we were told 'It’s a TV hit, you take it where you can' - regardless of the facts?”

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, called on Republicans to reject any future efforts to transfer funds out of FEMA.  “This is yet another example of the Trump administration’s outrageously misplaced homeland security priorities,” he said in a statement. “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. The 2017 hurricane season made painfully clear that FEMA has limited capacity to respond to multiple disasters as it is. With Hurricane Florence bearing down on the Carolinas and Puerto Rico still struggling after Maria, FEMA absolutely cannot afford to have any of its resources diverted.”

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