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Trump administration will divert disaster relief funds to U.S.-Mexico border enforcement, prompting outcry from Democrats

A group of Central American migrants walk next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence after they crossed the borderline in El Paso on May 15, 2019. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

The Trump administration is transferring hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster relief funding to boost U.S.-Mexico border enforcement, prompting an outcry from congressional Democrats who panned the action as an executive overreach.

The move comes amid an intensifying battle between Democrats and President Trump over the administration’s response to the flow of migrants and asylum seekers from Central America into the United States.

It also comes as a hurricane watch has been issued for Puerto Rico ahead of Tropical Storm Dorian, which could force the Federal Emergency Management Agency to tap the relief funds.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, said the move was indicative of “a growing disconnect between the will of Congress” and the implementation of immigration enforcement operations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the administration’s action “stunningly reckless,” adding that “to pick the pockets of disaster relief funding in order to fund an appalling, inhumane family incarceration plan is staggering.” And Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the move “backwards and cruel.”

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“Taking these critical funds from disaster preparedness and recovery efforts threatens lives and weakens the government’s ability to help Americans in the wake of natural disasters,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security said that it has notified Congress that it would “reprogram” and transfer $271 million from some agencies to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the DHS agency that detains and deports immigrants.

DHS said it would spend $116 million of the transferred funds on adult detention beds and transportation costs. An additional $155 million will fund temporary hearing facilities on the southwest border for migrants enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocol program, which has required thousands of asylum seekers from Central America, the Caribbean and elsewhere to remain in Mexico until their immigration court dates.

Officials said they transferred the funds in part because Congress didn’t provide them with funding for adult detention beds in the emergency supplemental budget that Trump signed in July.

“Given the rise of single adults crossing the border, ICE has already had to increase the number of detention beds above what Congress funded,” Homeland Security said in a statement. Without extra money, officials said, “ICE will not be able to support the influx of migrants” at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Charanya Krishnaswami, Amnesty International USA advocacy director for the Americas, called the transfers “an outrageous misuse of resources.”

“At the start of hurricane season, DHS is robbing hundreds of millions of dollars from disaster relief to fund a disaster of its own making,” Krishnaswami said in a statement. “It is using vital funds to further some of its cruelest policies — putting asylum-seekers in harm’s way and detaining families and children in search of safety.”

ICE is holding more than 54,000 migrants in immigration jails, and almost all are adults, according to its count as of Saturday. Most detainees are recent arrivals taken into custody at the border, and have not been convicted of a crime, according to ICE statistics online.

In a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, Roybal-Allard said she has “significant concerns” about the intended use of funds as well as about the “trade-offs between that use and the activities that would otherwise be funded from the source accounts.”

The DHS has not provided “any analysis to demonstrate that the movement of funds is justified,” she said in the letter, which was sent last Friday.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, also criticized the move, warning that “taking money away from TSA and from FEMA in the middle of hurricane season could have deadly consequences.”

“Once again this Administration is flouting the law and Congressional intent to fund its extremist indefinite detention immigration policies,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “This is reckless and the Administration is playing with fire — all in the name of locking up families and children and playing to the President’s base leading up to an election year.”