The Department of Homeland Security has alerted Congress it will shift hundreds of millions of dollars to boost its ability to hold and quickly deport immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, drawing a rebuke from Democrats who said the money is being cut from critical needs such as disaster relief.
The request was made last month, but the extent of the move was revealed in a letter from Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee panel that oversees homeland security spending.
Ms. Roybal-Allard, California Democrat, said the department was defying the will of Congress in moving nearly $280 million.
Acting DHS Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan said he wants $101.4 million in additional money for detention beds and $14.6 million for transportation and deportation costs at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
And he notified Congress he’s moving $155 million to expand the Migration Protection Protocol, the so-called “return-to-Mexico” program the Trump administration is using to have some asylum-seekers wait outside the U.S. while their cases proceed in immigration courts. The $155 million would expand courtroom hearing space to speed up those cases.
The money would come from border operations, Coast Guard construction and research accounts, the Transportation Security Administration’s operations accounts, and cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Siphoning away FEMA money was particularly troubling for congressional Democrats who said it was an odd move just as hurricane season kicks into gear.
But Mr. McAleenan said the FEMA money is cash recovered from previous years’ funds, and unless there’s a major disaster the agency has enough money to cover its needs.
FEMA offered more granularity on that math, saying in a statement that the base disaster recovery fund account will have a balance of $447 million even after the funds are transferred. Another disaster account with money for rebuilding from previous disasters such as the 2017 hurricanes still has $27 billion, and isn’t affected by the cut, FEMA says.
Trump critics accused ICE of “purposely mismanaging” its budget to circumvent Congress.
“It’s the fuel behind this administration’s clear directive to detain as many people as possible without any discretion or due process,” said Gabriela Viera at the Detention Watch Network. She called on Congress to write new laws banning DHS from making these sorts of shifts.
The president’s critics are still incensed over Mr. Trump’s move this year to shift billions of dollars in Pentagon spending toward construction of his border wall.
As for the beds, Mr. McAleenan, in testimony to Congress last month, said Democrats are trying to have it both ways by complaining about overcrowded conditions at border-holding facilities, but refusing to fund ICE facilities that could alleviate the overcrowding.
Immigrations caught crossing the border illegally are supposed to be processed by the Border Patrol and then transferred to ICE for detention or release, but ICE has maxed out bed space, causing the backlog at the border facilities, he said.
“That is contributing to overcrowding,” he said.
He had asked for $200 million in additional bed money in the border emergency spending bill earlier this year. Congress did not include any of that money in the final law.
Mr. McAleenan said the law allows him to transfer money in cases where there’s an imminent threat to human life or protection of property.
Ms. Roybal-Allard, in a letter to Mr. McAleenan, said he didn’t actually say what the imminent threat was that required the shift in resources.
“It is unfortunate that the department has again elected to ignore the negotiated agreement with Congress by vastly exceeding the amount appropriated for immigration enforcement and removal operations,” she wrote.
She said there may be a need for an increase, giving the rise in illegal border crossings this year, but said ICE’s bed space crossed the line even before the record border surge. She said ICE should have been at a daily average of 40,520 beds during the first five months of the year, but instead it topped 46,000 at some points.
The total now stands at 55,000, she said.