As Hurricane Florence, the northernmost Category 5 hurricane in history, prepares to slam into the Carolinas and Virginia, a U.S. senator has revealed the Trump administration used nearly $10 million earmarked for hurricane relief to bolster the ability of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain and deport undocumented people, including children.
The revelation was made live Tuesday night by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. Merkley, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, acquired an undisclosed document showing $9.8 million was diverted from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to ICE to pay for more “detention beds” and “ICE’s transportation and removal program.” The transfers appear to have been made this summer, before the start of hurricane season. Merkley also revealed the Trump administration is planning to construct “family internment camps” using some of the FEMA funds transferred to ICE.
“This is a scandal,” Merkley said in a statement to the Washington Post. “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.”
In a statement to the Maddow Show, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not dispute the authenticity of Merkley’s document. The agency, which oversees ICE and FEMA, claimed the funds didn’t come from FEMA’s “disaster and recovery response efforts.” Merkley disputes this claim, and provided documentation Tuesday proving the $9.8 million was transferred to ICE directly from FEMA’s response and recovery budget.
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ICE was already poised for a major funding increase. The Trump administration’s budget for fiscal year 2019 is seeking $8.3 billion in discretionary funding for ICE, as well as $525.6 million in budget authority to cover mandatory fees, equaling around $8.8 billion. This represents an increase of $967 million compared to ICE’s 2018 budget. In April, ICE and DHS released a joint statement, asserting the increase in funding was “critical for ICE to meet its mission needs.”
This is a common claim from ICE, an agency that has seemingly bottomless funding and little oversight of how it uses taxpayer money.
In May 2017, Congress passed a supplemental appropriations bill providing ICE with nearly $2.6 billion to increase its detention capacity. A bipartisan report accompanied the bill, criticizing ICE for its “lack of fiscal discipline and cavalier management of funding for detention operations,” but the appropriation went through regardless. Congress did issue a warning to ICE that the agency was not “funded by an indefinite appropriation,” and it must “manage-to-budget and [not] operate under the false perception that Congress will provide a bail out if financial controls fail or are simply ignored.” But less than three months later, ICE returned to Congress to request an additional $91 million for detention beds. The request was granted.
In a previous interview with Rewire.News, Mary Small, policy director of Detention Watch Network, an immigrant rights organization that has reported extensively on abuses by ICE and at detention centers, said this is a pattern: Congress gives ICE exorbitant amounts of money based on “misrepresentations of so-called operational needs,” despite periodic public scolding for the agency’s “chronic fiscal mismanagement.”
For fiscal year 2018, for example, DHS requested an overall increase in funding for ICE of about 30 percent. This included an additional $1.2 billion for detention operations, and an extra $186 million to create 1,600 new jobs at the agency. The justification for these requests is based only on estimated or projected needs to accommodate greater numbers of detainees. As Small pointed out, “The actual language of [Trump’s executive order on immigration] actually doesn’t direct ICE to detain more people” and “it’s not appropriate for ICE to go beyond the bounds of what they’ve actually been given the funds to do by Congress.”
Patrick Roberts, a Virginia Tech professor and author of Disasters and the American State, an exploration of the trajectory of the federal government’s involvement in preparing for disasters, wrote last year that a lot has changed in FEMA since Hurricane Katrina, but a troubling point remains: As part of DHS, FEMA is a misfit within an agency that has very different priorities. During Hurricane Katrina, the department was focused on terrorism. As Hurricane Florence approaches, DHS’s primary focus is immigration and border enforcement, as evidenced by the Trump administration’s willingness to take needed funds from the agency’s emergency response and recovery budget to hand to ICE.
Merkley’s revelation comes roughly two weeks after the 13th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a deadly category 5 hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast and killed more than 1,800 people. The catastrophic aftermath of the storm has become synonymous with the federal government’s failure to protect the people of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina spread across 400 miles with sustained winds of up to 125 miles per hour, while Hurricane Florence is carrying sustained winds of up to 130 miles per hour and is expected to spread across 500 miles.
One year after Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 hurricane that struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, the public has just learned the extent of the storm’s devastation. In August, research from George Washington University revealed Hurricane Maria’s death toll was 2,975. The death toll cited by the Puerto Rican government and the Trump administration was 64.
Hurricane Florence is less than 48 hours away from making landfall on the southeast coast, where it is expected to slow significantly, “allowing the storm to dump a catastrophic amount of rain in the Carolinas” with the “potential for unbelievable damage,” the Washington Post reported.