By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is shifting $271 million (220.7 million pounds) earmarked for disaster aid and cyber security to pay for immigration-related facilities, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a leading congressional Democrat said on Tuesday.
The money, which was also set aside for the U.S. Coast Guard, will be used to pay for detention facilities and courts for migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. DHS officials say they have been overwhelmed by a surge of asylum-seeking migrants fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
The Trump administration is seeking to circumvent Congress to move money originally designated for other programs. This will allow the administration to continue to house immigrants arriving at the border, part of President Donald Trump’s promise not to allow them to await hearings outside of custody.
The administration plans to take $115 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief fund just as hurricane season is heating up in the Atlantic Ocean, according to a letter from U.S. Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, who chairs the congressional panel that oversees Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending.
Money will be taken for planned upgrades to the National Cybersecurity Protection System and new equipment for the U.S. Coast Guard, the letter said.
DHS said Congress did not provide enough money for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain single adults as they wait for their cases to be heard by an immigration judge.
Congress appropriated $2.8 billion to pay for 52,000 beds this year, but ICE is currently detaining more than 55,000 immigrants, a record high, according to agency statistics.
Roybal-Allard said DHS was exceeding its authority to move money around to respond to emergencies.
“Once again, DHS has ignored the negotiated agreement with Congress by vastly exceeding the amount appropriated for immigration enforcement and removal operations,” she said in a statement.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, urged the Trump administration to reconsider the shift in funds.
“Stealing from appropriated funds is always unacceptable, but to pick the pockets of disaster relief funding in order to fund an appalling, inhumane family incarceration plan is staggering – and to do so on the eve of hurricane season is stunningly reckless,” Pelosi said in a statement.
FEMA spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said the funding reduction will not impact readiness efforts or other functions for which the money was earmarked.
Trump has made cracking down on legal and illegal immigration a hallmark of his presidency after campaigning in 2016 on a promise, so far unfulfilled, that Mexico would pay for a border wall to keep migrants from entering the United States.
A record-setting 42,000 families were apprehended along the U.S. southern border in July, more than twice as many as in May.
Last week, DHS unveiled a new rule that would allow officials to detain migrant families indefinitely – abolishing a previous 20-day limit – while judges consider whether to grant them asylum in the United States.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Dan Grebler and Sonya Hepinstall)