WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security transferred nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to a budget document released by a Democratic senator late Tuesday night, diverting funds from the relief agency at the start of the hurricane season that began in June.
The release of the document comes as a major storm barrels toward the East Coast.
The document, released by the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, shows that the money would come from FEMA's operations and support budget and was transferred into accounts at ICE to pay for detention and removal operations. The document also shows that the Department of Homeland Security transferred money from accounts at Customs and Border Protection that pays for border fencing and technology.
The transfer was a part of more than $200 million the Department of Homeland Security moved from the budgets of other agencies to ICE's detention and removals.
Merkley, appearing Tuesday night on "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC, said the Trump administration was taking money from FEMA's "response and recovery" and "working hard to find funds for additional detention camps." Merkley has been a vocal critic of the administration's immigration policies.
The Department of Homeland Security denies that any money transferred came from FEMA's disasters relief accounts, which pay for work related to hurricanes and other natural disasters.
"Under no circumstances was any disaster relief funding transferred from @fema to immigration enforcement efforts," Tyler Houlton, an agency spokesman, said on Twitter. "This is a sorry attempt to push a false agenda at a time when the administration is focused on assisting millions on the East Coast facing a catastrophic disaster."
Houlton added that money transferred from FEMA could not have been used to pay for hurricane relief efforts because of "appropriation limitations."
In an e-mail, the agency said funds taken from FEMA's accounts amounted to less than 1 percent of the agency's operational accounts and was taken from money to pay for employee travel expenses, training, basic purchase cards and office supplies, among other things. FEMA's funding for disaster response is in a separate, $25 billion account, the agency said.
The agency said it is prepared for Hurricane Florence, which is expected to hit North and South Carolina, and Virginia on Thursday or Friday. FEMA officials said the hurricane could be the strongest storm to hit the Carolinas and Virginia region "in decades."
The release of the budget documents showing the money transfers between FEMA and ICE came after President Donald Trump in an interview called last year's hurricane response efforts by FEMA in Puerto Rico an "unsung success."
"The job that FEMA and law enforcement and everybody did working along with the governor in Puerto Rico, I think was tremendous," Trump said.
In a Wednesday morning Twitter post, Trump doubled down on the agency's performance: "We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!"
New data show that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the hurricane and many people continue to live without power on the island. An after-action report by FEMA released in July shows that the agency vastly underestimated how much food and fresh water it would need, and how hard it would be to get additional supplies to the island.
The report describes the initial response as chaotic and disorganized and plagued with logistical problems as the agency tried to get food and other equipment onto the island.