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FEMA officials: Budget funding diverted to ICE ‘has not impacted’ hurricane response

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 11: U.S. President Donald Trump (L) listens as FEMA Administrator Brock Long (C) speaks while meeting with Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (R) in the Oval Office September 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. Trump and Long warned coastal residents of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia to adhere to evacuation orders as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast of the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency insisted Wednesday that the transfer of nearly $10 million of its budget to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not affect the agency’s hurricane response and other disaster relief efforts.

“We have plenty of resources, both monetary, staff and commodities, to respond to the storm,” Jeff Byard, FEMA’s associate administrator for the Office and Response and Recovery, told reporters during a morning briefing as Hurricane Florence barreled toward the Carolina coast. “We have plenty of resources to respond, plenty of resources to recover. That has not impacted our situation whatsoever.”

FEMA Administrator Brock Long also insisted that the funding given to ICE did not come from the disaster relief fund.

Asked if the funds’ movement affected storm preparations, Long told ABC News, “No, not at all. It’s just an attempt to divert away from the life safety issues of Florence. It does not come out of the disaster relief fund that funds everything behind me and in the field, so it’s a non-issue for us at this moment.”

The controversy

Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley released a document Tuesday showing the transfer, and accused President Donald Trump’s administration of diverting funds from hurricane relief just as hurricane season was starting.

However, the document from the Department of Homeland Security specifically mentions the money would come from the agency’s budgets for travel, training, public engagement and information technology work. The department denies that the money came from disaster relief funding.

FEMA spokesperson Jenny Burke slammed Merkley, who appeared on cable news outlets to talk about the document.

“After calling @SenJeffMerkley staff to inform them of the facts surrounding @FEMA budget we were told ‘It’s a TV hit, you take it where you can’ – regardless of the facts?” Burke tweeted Wednesday.

CNN received a copy of the document from Merkley’s office. It details the effects the transfer would have on FEMA’s operations and from where in the budget the money would come.

“FEMA will curtail training, travel, public engagement sessions, IT security support and infrastructure maintenance, and IT investments in the legacy grants systems for transition to the Grants Management Modernization Program,” the document says.

The document shows the amount transferred from FEMA to ICE is is less than 1% of FEMA’s overall budget. FEMA’s budget originally was $1.03 billion, and the amount transferred was about $9.755 million.

The document confirms that the money would be spent on ICE’s detention facilities.

“Without the transfers and reprogramming identified in this notification, ICE will not be able to fulfill its adult detention requirements in (fiscal year) 2018,” the document says.

The response

Homeland Security press secretary Tyler Houlton also stated that DHS did not shift disaster relief funding away from FEMA.

“Under no circumstances was any disaster relief funding transferred from @fema to immigration enforcement efforts,” Houlton 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.”

He added, “The money in question — transferred to ICE from FEMA’s routine operating expenses — could not have been used for hurricane response due to appropriation limitations. DHS/FEMA stand fiscally and operationally ready to support current and future response and recovery needs.”

House lawmakers were told about the decision to make the payment in late July.

Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego told CNN following a meeting between DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on July 25 that each DHS department would be contributing toward ICE’s detention activities.

“As an overall, the meeting was long on excuses and on misrepresentations and short on information and solutions … one thing we do know, they are taking 1% of every DHS department and putting that towards family detention and family separation,” Gallego said.