U.S. Homeland Security officials are downplaying the transfer of nearly $10 million from the U.S. disaster response agency to immigration enforcement efforts, first brought to national attention in a TV appearance by a senator Tuesday night.
Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from the northwestern state of Oregon, told a nightly MSNBC news program that the funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, were allocated for “detention beds” and “transportation and removal” by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He shared a budget document that showed the funds "reprogrammed" for the FEMA "Operations and Support" fund.
Both agencies are part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
DHS said the transfer of funds would neither affect FEMA's readiness for emergencies, nor support immigration enforcement.
In a statement emailed to reporters Wednesday morning, a DHS spokesperson referred to “misinformed reports” of the $9.8 million transfer.
The department did not deny the transfer, instead saying the money was not part of FEMA’s disaster response.
Citing an unnamed “DHS official,” the statement added that the “mission-impact on FEMA response and recovery of this transfer of funds is zero.”
Top DHS spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton tweeted during the show, "Under no circumstances was any disaster relief funding transferred from @fema to immigration enforcement efforts."
A Washington Post report indicates the document was written in June and approved by Congress between July and September.
DHS said the money was left over when FEMA management expenses "came in under budget" ahead of the end of the 2018 fiscal year on September 30, and that FEMA has a disaster response/recovery budget of $25 billion.
The senator's allegation on Tuesday hits the Trump administration on two of its more criticized policies: disaster preparedness and immigrant detention.
The U.S. government response to natural disasters is under intense scrutiny after a study of hurricane deaths in Puerto Rico revised the original death toll — said to have been in the dozens — to nearly 3,000 people killed as a result of Hurricane Maria that hit the U.S. territory last year.
The Trump administration also has come under fire in recent months for its immigration detention and deportation policies, which reached a peak with the separation of parents and children who crossed the U.S. border from Mexico earlier this year.
“To prioritize the separation and detention of families over providing relief to disaster-stricken communities is a scandalous use of taxpayer dollars,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “Funding family separation, detention and deportation with money meant to help Americans prepare for and recover from natural disasters flies in the face of American values and puts public safety at risk.”
The financial fracas came to light Tuesday as several U.S. states in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern region have declared states of emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence. The Category 4 storm, which prompted the evacuation of more than a million residents of coastal areas in North and South Carolina, is expected to make landfall with “life-threatening storm surge and rainfall” in the coming days.
At last report, the storm was about 800 kilometers from the U.S. coast.