Trump administration to use millions in disaster aid for migrant detention centers

By Camilo Montoya-Galvez

/ CBS News

Courts speed up "Remain in Mexico" hearings

Washington — The Trump administration is planning to use $271 million allocated for disaster aid efforts and other initiatives to expand space in migrant detention centers and bolster a program that requires tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed in the U.S.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified Congress in late July that it intended to reprogram funds from several agencies — including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Coast Guard — to detention centers managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It also said it was funding the construction of temporary facilities for the government to hold court hearings for its controversial "Remain in Mexico" program.

The notification to Congress was first revealed in a letter from Democratic Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, to Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan. The California Democrat expressed her disagreement with his agency's plans.

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"It is of great concern that during the course of this administration, there has been a growing disconnect between the will of Congress, as represented by ICE funding levels in enacted appropriations bills signed by the President, and the Department, immigration enforcement operations, which often lack justification," Roybal-Allard wrote in her letter, dated August 23.

NBC News first reported the department's plans to divert the funds.

Roybal-Allard said the proposed action by the sprawling department — which oversees three immigration-related agencies but also has important national security and disaster response responsibilities — would allow ICE to detain more people and carry out more removal operations. Over the past years, Congress has limited the number of detention beds through funding bills. Roybal-Allard accused DHS of attempting to circumvent those limits through its new plan to transfer funds.

Trump administration extends detention of migrant families with children

DHS notified her committee that it would divert $155 million from FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund so the government can establish facilities along the border for asylum seekers placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program and returned to Mexico. The department said $116 million would go to fund the purchase of new beds for ICE

FEMA did not immediately respond to an inquiry into whether the agency is concerned about resources being shifted to another branch of DHS, especially during hurricane season. Tropical Storm Dorian is currently barreling toward the Caribbean, with Puerto Rico under a hurricane watch.

Under the "Remain in Mexico" policy, migrants are only temporarily allowed back into the U.S. for the hearing. So far, the U.S. has placed more than 37,000 people in this program, Customs and Border Protection confirmed to CBS News on Tuesday. Migrants returned to Mexico in California and in the El Paso sector are scheduled for court hearings in San Diego and El Paso, respectively. But there are no immigration courts close to the Texas border cities of Brownsville and Laredo, the other locations where MPP has been implemented.

Because of this, the administration is looking to build "soft-sided facilities" in these parts of Texas. But Roybal-Allard noted that the country's immigration courts are overseen by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a branch of the Justice Department, which she said is funded through separate congressional appropriations. She said using money to support those courts would seemingly violate federal law that "prohibits the obligation of funds from one appropriation account for a purpose if Congress has appropriated funds for that purpose through another account."

Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said DHS was "flouting the law" with its plan.

"This is reckless and the Administration is playing with fire — all in the name of locking up families and children and playing to the President's base leading up to an election year. Taking money away from TSA and from FEMA in the middle of hurricane season could have deadly consequences," Thompson wrote in a statement.

Earlier this year, the White House considered a proposal that would divert billions of dollars in disaster aid funds for Puerto Rico and several states affected by natural disasters to fund the construction of President Trump's long promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

First published on August 27, 2019 / 6:11 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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