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FEMA money taken for immigration enforcement: What you need to know

In this Aug. 4, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin) In this Aug. 4, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

In this Aug. 4, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde October 2, 2019

Every year, millions of Americans brace themselves for the potential devastation that natural disasters may have in their communities, may it be wildfires in the west coast, hurricanes in the east and Gulf coasts, or tornadoes in the south-central region.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is the agency in charge of helping Americans before, during and after disaster strikes. So when Homeland Security, the department that oversees the agency, notified Congress of its intent to take about $160 million from FEMA’s coffers and use it for immigration enforcement, Democratic lawmakers came out against the move.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said President Donald Trump’s administration was "shortchanging preparedness" and "endangering America" in favor of furthering the border agenda.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noted the timing of the decision, saying, "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."

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June to November; the peak months span from August to October.

Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan countered the criticism in Sept. 1 interviews by saying at that point, no money had been moved, and that the potential transfer would not jeopardize FEMA’s response to hurricanes.

The decision raises several questions — what are the FEMA funds going toward, and what does that mean for disaster preparedness? Here’s a rundown of what we learned.

How much money is being taken out of FEMA?

As required by law, the Department of Homeland Security notified Congress in late July of its plan to transfer $271 million from several agencies within the department to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which it also oversees.

Of the $271 million, about $112.6 million comes from other agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The bigger chunk comes from FEMA — specifically, $155 million from the Disaster Relief Fund’s Base account, and about $3.4 million from the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Fund.

The Disaster Relief Fund’s Base account funds emergency designations, fire management assistance, pre-disaster declaration activities, and disaster readiness and support programs. Officials in July said that the transfer to ICE would leave a balance of $447 million in the base account. (As of Aug. 31, that account had $357 million.)

It’s worth noting that the Disaster Relief Fund also has a "Majors" account, tapped after the president announces a major disaster declaration under the Stafford Act. By the end of August, that account had about $24 billion.

Does the money transfer impair FEMA’s ability to do its job?

Homeland Security officials say that the transfer will not hinder the department’s ability to respond to disasters. But associations representing state and local emergency managers oppose the money transfer.

In documents from July, the agency wrote that "absent significant new catastrophic events," the Department of Homeland Security believes the balance of the Disaster Relief Fund Base account would be "sufficient to support operational needs."

McAleenan on Sept. 1 also said that "any potential transfers will not impact our ability to respond to this storm or any other storms in the rest of the hurricane season." (He had been asked on ABC’s "This Week" about Hurricane Dorian.)

The National Emergency Management Association and the International Association of Emergency Managers came out in opposition to the $155 million reprogramming, saying  that it puts at risk assistance to disaster survivors.

"While the operational impact of this recent reprogramming may be minimal, any funds siphoned from the (Disaster Relief Fund) reduce those funds immediately available to fight wildland fires, preposition equipment for hurricanes, and assist communities across the nation in advance of a known disaster," the associations said in an Aug. 29 statement.

How will Homeland Security use $155 million from the Disaster Relief Fund?

Homeland Security earlier this year announced a new program called Migrant Protection Protocols, under which immigrants seeking entry into the United States at the southwest border, whether illegally or without proper documentation, are to be sent to Mexico for the duration of their immigration cases.

Homeland Security said it intended to use $155 million from FEMA to build temporary immigration hearing facilities along the southwest border. The facilities are expected to have private meeting spaces, courtrooms, internet, telephones and video teleconferencing. (On Sept. 27, a FEMA spokesperson told PolitiFact that $38 million had been transferred from the Disaster Relief Fund to ICE, but did not provide details on when the rest of the money would be transferred.)

Immigration authorities launched the program as a way to reduce the number of people arriving at the border requesting asylum. They argue that outdated laws and court decisions have allowed many people to come into the country to request asylum, and then to be let free to disappear within the country before a judge hears their claim.

By the end of August 2019, more than 810,000 people had been apprehended at the southwest border. (The fiscal year ended Sept. 30.) There were just under 400,000 apprehensions in fiscal year 2018.

How will the money from the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Fund be used?

Homeland Security plans to give ICE $116 million to detain and transport immigrants. A slice of $3.4 million is from FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Fund. 

The average number of people in ICE detention in early July was around 46,400. Without more funding for detention beds, ICE will be unable to hold an influx of immigrants that are being transferred over from Border Patrol, Homeland Security said.

Because of an increase in the number of immigrants, ICE also needs more money to pay for their transportation, and for transportation costs specifically related to the Migrant Protection Protocols program, the department said.

It’s not the first time FEMA money has been repurposed in this way during the Trump administration. In 2018, Homeland Security transferred about $10 million from FEMA to ICE to pay for detention beds and for the transportation of immigrants ordered deported. Those FEMA funds had been marked for response and recovery, mitigation, preparedness and protection before they were tapped. 

Pre-Disaster Mitigation funds are used to help communities to reduce impacts from future disasters, said Steve Ellis, executive vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "And while $3.4 million doesn’t sound like a lot, that could be a project that helps a vulnerable community," he said.

Will FEMA money be used to pay for the border wall?

No, the funds will not pay for a border wall. Read our latest report on construction at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Have more questions about how the United States funds disaster recovery?

Then check out this PolitiFact story that covers what triggers federal disaster relief, how FEMA spends money, where that money comes from, and what happens when disaster recovery outstrips FEMA funding.

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Our Sources

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Department of Homeland Security FY 2019 Southwest Border Emergency Transfer and Reprogramming Notification, July 26, 2019, Migrant Protection Protocols, Jan. 24, 2019, Southwest Border Migration FY 2019

PolitiFact, Donald Trump’s border wall: how much has been built?, Aug. 30, 2019; Yes, $10 million were transferred from FEMA to ICE, Sept. 13, 2018; How the U.S. funds disaster recovery, Sept. 14, 2017

Email interview, National Emergency Management Association media coordinator Karen L. Cobuluis, Sept. 19, 2019

Email interview, Steve Ellis, executive vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, Sept. 19, 2019

Email interview, FEMA press office, Sept. 18, 2019, 'This Week' Transcript 9-1-19: Kevin McAleenan, Sen. Pat Toomey, Sept. 1, 2019, Full transcript of "Face the Nation" on September 1, Sept. 1, 2019, Pelosi Statement on Trump Administration Stealing Money from Disaster Relief to Fund Cruel Family Incarceration Policy, Aug. 28, 2019

Sen. Jeff Merkley website, Merkley Decries Trump Decision to Transfer FEMA Funding to Immigrant Detention, Aug. 27, 2019

Twitter, @RepRoybalAllard tweet, Aug. 27, 2019, DHS to Reprogram and Transfer $271 Million to Support Humanitarian and Security Emergency Response, Aug. 27, 2019

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