White House

Trump wants to reprogram DHS money for ICE detention operations

This is the fourth consecutive fiscal year in which DHS has diverted money for immigrant enforcement

A United States Custom and Border Protection in the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the U.S.-Mexico border. President Donald Trump wants to divert over $200 million from the Department of Homeland Security to pay for items that include more ICE detention beds and hearing locations for migrants told to remain in Mexico. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call)

The Department of Homeland Security intends to divert more than $200 million from other departmental functions to pay for additional immigrant detention beds and for new hearing locations for migrants who want to come to the United States but are told to remain in Mexico.

This is the fourth consecutive fiscal year in which DHS has diverted money for immigrant enforcement from other appropriations accounts, despite objections from Democrats. 

[New ‘public charge’ rule could affect millions of immigrants]

The total amount pulled from other agencies to fund Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds, transport and deportations is around $116 million, according to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. That includes $3.4 million reprogrammed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Buzzfeed News first reported the numbers on Twitter.

A letter obtained by CQ Roll Call, sent by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., to DHS acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan, also notes that DHS is planning to divert $155 million from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to ICE for the establishment of additional immigration court hearing facilities for the Executive Office of Immigration Review.

These funds are meant to help adjudicate the asylum cases of migrants in the “Remain in Mexico” or Migrant Protection Protocols program. That program requires certain asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in the United States. 

“I object to the use of funds for that purpose because the Department has provided no substantiation for the claim that this transfer is necessary due to ‘extraordinary circumstances that imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property,’” Roybal-Allard writes in the letter.

“The stated need for the immigration hearing space near land ports of entry is a direct result of this administration’s policy choices, not due to any imminent threat to safety of human life or the protection of property independent of those choices,” she added.

Roybal-Allard mentions that ICE started spending on undocumented immigrant detention over its appropriated limit early in the year. The 2019 enacted appropriations funded an average detained daily population of around 40,500, but the number of detainees climbed to 46,000 just in the first quarter of the fiscal year — before the “historically significant migrant surge at the border,” Roybal-Allard writes.

In mid-August, the total population detained by ICE climbed to 55,000, despite a decline in migration flows in July. It has come down again in recent weeks.

The department said in a statement Tuesday that the additional money was needed for detention, transportation and hearings courtrooms. "Without additional funding for single adult detention beds and transportation from the U.S. Border Patrol to ICE detention facilities, ICE will not be able to support the influx of migrants from U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehensions,'' the statement said.

Congressional appropriators received notification that DHS planned to divert funds on July 26, and have been tight lipped about whether they might concur with this decision — frustrating advocates for immigrants. Homeland Security does not need congressional approval to go ahead with the transfer. But critics say diverting money for the Migrant Protection Protocols program, in particular, may be illegal.

In 2018, too, DHS diverted $169 million in funds appropriated for disaster management and national security for ICE detention and deportation operations. Those reprogramming notification documents were made public by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.


Tester sent a letter to McAleenan on Tuesday warning that the agency reprogramming proposal directly defies laws Congress passed on a bipartisan basis and that were signed by President Donald Trump.

“I have grave concerns about DHS’s proposed end-run around laws passed by Congress that would drain millions from agencies tasked with protecting the homeland from security threats and natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires — including CBP, TSA, FEMA and the Coast Guard,” Tester said. “Congress has already deliberated DHS’s request and appropriated the highest-ever funding for border security and immigration enforcement, which passed on a bipartisan basis and was signed by President Trump.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee on Homeland Security, also sent a letter to McAleenan expressing concern about using Disaster Relief Fund money for border enforcement.

“I have concerns about the use of resources from the Disaster Relief Fund to fund other activities and I appreciate your assurances that transfers from the DRF will not affect disaster preparedness or response. To that end, I anticipate that you will closely monitor the Department's requirements and proposed spending and only make transfers from the DRF to other programs incrementally and as needed.”

Immigration advocates have been urging Congress to check DHS’s tendency to overspend on ICE activities — especially as the time for 2020 budget negotiations draws near.

“It should surprise no one that the White House and Department of Homeland Security would prioritize the jailing and deportation of immigrants over the safety of all our communities which is what they have done by robbing FEMA to fund their relentless attack on asylum seekers and immigrant communities,” Heidi Altman, of the National Immigration Justice Center, said in a statement. Her organization has been tracking ICE’s budget increases and DHS’s reprogramming requests over the past decade. “The transfer notification document is a clear reflection of this administration’s priorities, and it is shameful.”

Madhuri Grewal, American Civil Liberties Union policy counsel, also denounced the transfer of funds. “An agency that cannot be trusted to maintain its spending within the bounds set by Congress, that consistently disregards congressional authority and the Constitution, and continues to inflict pain and suffering in our communities and at the border should not be rewarded,” she said in a statement.


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