The Trump administration appears to have diverted nearly $10 million in funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency at the forefront of the president's zero-tolerance immigration policy that led to the separation of hundreds of children, some as young as 18 months, from their parents.
The reallocation of public money is documented in a "Transfer and Reprogramming" notification prepared this fiscal year by the Department of Homeland Security, the parent department of ICE, as the agency is known. It was made public by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon in an appearance Tuesday on "The Rachel Maddow Show," as Hurricane Florence barreled toward the Carolinas.
Merkley's office provided the 39-page budget document independently to The Washington Post. It shows that DHS requested that about $9.8 million going toward FEMA efforts such as "Preparedness and Protection" and "Response and Recovery" be funneled instead into ICE coffers, specifically underwriting "Detention Beds" and the agency's "Transportation and Removal Program." The U.S. Secret Service was also a beneficiary of the reallocation.
"This is a scandal," Merkley said in an emailed statement to the 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."
The "monster," as Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina labeled the storm gathering strength off the southeastern Atlantic coast, threatens enormous damage and a replay of last year's devastating hurricane season, in which FEMA was woefully unprepared for the catastrophe that befell Puerto Rico, according to an after-action report by the agency. Meanwhile, a year after Hurricane Harvey brought the worst rainstorm in the nation's history to the Houston area, 50 percent of lower-income respondents in a survey conducted this summer said they weren't getting the help they needed.
As Trump pledged Tuesday that "We are sparing no expense" in preparing for Florence, DHS did not dispute the authenticity of the document in a statement posted on Twitter. The department acknowledged that funds had been redirected but said the transfer did not jeopardize relief efforts.
The memorandum sheds light on the immigration-enforcement operations enhanced by the FEMA funds. Without the transfer, the document notes, "ICE will not be able to fulfill its adult detention requirements in FY 2018." Insufficient funding, DHS observes, could prevent the agency from deporting people who stand in violation of the country's immigration laws while requiring ICE 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."
These new limitations, the department warns, "would pose a significant risk to public safety and national security by permitting known offenders to remain at large."
The precise timing of the reallocation is unclear, as the document, which refers to Fiscal Year 2018, does not include an exact date. The document's file information indicates that it was created in late June, the first month of the Atlantic hurricane season. A Senate aide told the Post that the fiscal notice appears to have been written in June, sent to Congress at the end of the month and approved sometime between July and September.
DHS is required to notify the House and Senate Appropriations Committees of reprogramming of funds in excess of $5 million, according to a 2009 appropriations measure. Merkley, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Maddow that the document he released was "the notification document that would have come to the Appropriations Committee, specifically to the chair of [the subcommittee on] Homeland Security."
Merkley said he came across the document in the course of his efforts to try "to stop child separations," which included his attempt in early June to visit a detention facility in South Texas. He linked the transfer of funds to the zero-tolerance policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May.
"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,'" Merkley said Tuesday evening on the MSNBC show. He also suggested that the financial pressure was linked to this month's announcement by the administration of new regulations designed to enable expanded detention of families who cross into the U.S. without legal status.
As for FEMA, the notifying document states that the "Mission impact" will be "minimized," as the agency will scale back training, travel, public engagement sessions and IT security support and infrastructure maintenance.
A spokesman for DHS responded to Merkley's allegations in a series of tweets late Tuesday, acknowledging the budgetary reallocation but arguing that the funds in question came from "FEMA's routine operating expenses" and "could not have been used for hurricane response due to appropriations limitations."
"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. DHS/FEMA stand fiscally and operationally ready to support current and future response and recovery needs," Tyler Q. Houlton wrote on Twitter.
Former DHS and FEMA officials, however, disputed the spokesman's claim that the money in question was distinct from "hurricane response," saying these funds were critical to the agency's overall mission of storm preparedness and response, even if they were not explicitly earmarked for disaster relief.
"Anyone who knows FEMA knows it's parsing words," Moira Whelan, a former chief of staff in the Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding at Homeland Security's National Joint Information Center, told the Post. The disaster relief funding left untouched by the transfer, Whelan said, covers post-storm assistance and the rebuilding of public structures, while "Response and Recovery" money tapped for the transfer pays for plans, logistics, supply-chain management and after-action reports that seek to improve on previous seasons, said Whelan, who is also a former official with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The nearly $10 million diverted to ICE comes from a roughly $1 billion operating budget that supports much of FEMA's efforts beyond the immediate response to a declared emergency, said a former FEMA official who asked not to be identified because he still does business with the agency. That includes staff, meetings and exercises, he said - all crucial to readiness for the next hurricane season. One example, the former official said, was the network of warehouses operated by FEMA across the country, which requires staff and supplies.
Trump said on Tuesday that the government was "absolutely, totally prepared" for the hurricane bearing down on the Carolinas. Florence is expected to make landfall in southeast North Carolina on Friday as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, bringing destructive winds and leaving flooding in its wake.
"We're ready. FEMA is ready. Everybody is ready," Trump said in brief remarks at Joint Base Andrews.
Later in the day, after a briefing on the hurricane, the president affirmed, "The safety of the American people is my absolute highest priority. We are sparing no expense." He also used the occasion to trumpet as an "incredible, unsung success" his administration's response to Hurricane Maria, which caused nearly 3,000 deaths on Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory already badly damaged by Hurricane Irma weeks earlier.
It was "one of the best jobs that's ever been done with respect to what this is all about," Trump said.
This article was written by Isaac Stanley-Becker, a reporter for The Washington Post.