The Department of Homeland Security will transfer more than $200 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to pay for a massive increase in detention beds and temporary courts at the US border, according to congressional and homeland security officials.
Some of those funds, $155 million, will be diverted from FEMA's disaster relief fund. The fund pays for the federal response to catastrophic events, like hurricanes or wildfires. The funding transfer comes as hurricane season ramps up and Tropical Storm Dorian takes aim at Puerto Rico this week.
This $155 million chunk of the funds will go to the courts at the border, which will handle cases of asylum-seekers thrust into a program that forces them to remain in Mexico as their cases proceed, according to Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, who chairs the House DHS Appropriations Subcommittee.
To pay for the beds and transportation costs, DHS will transfer $116 million from other components, including $3.4 million in additional funds from FEMA.
In a letter to Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, Roybal-Allard said she was worried about the money being diverted from FEMA.
“I have significant concerns about the intended use of funds and, consequently, about the tradeoffs between that use and the activities that would otherwise funded from the source accounts, ranging from the procurement of Coast Guard assets to the improvement of the National Cybersecurity Protection System,” she wrote.
Under the Trump administration, ICE officials have expanded detention of immigrants to record levels. As of last week, the agency was detaining more than 55,000 individuals in local jails and private detention centers across the country.
ICE had been funded to detain an average of just over 42,000 people, but is expecting to reach an average daily population of 50,000 people by the end of the fiscal year in September. Advocates and experts believe the increase has been driven by the agency detaining individuals who could otherwise be released, while agency officials say an increase in border crossings has forced their hand.
“We worked in a way that provided the component leadership input into ways to minimize risk,” said one DHS official. “We do understand that these funds are for other purposes, but this is a must-pay bill.”
Kevin Landy, a former top ICE official under the Obama administration, said the Trump administration’s reasoning for the transfer request was born out of mistaken policy, not necessity.
“They are at 55,000 because of their regressive policies — arresting and detaining people with no criminal convictions and not releasing asylum-seekers even after they have been determined to have a credible claim,” he said.
Nearly 9,000 immigrants detained by ICE have passed an initial government test demonstrating a fear that if they are deported to their home countries they will face persecution, according to data released by ICE this month.