DHS tapping disaster relief budgets for immigration funds

Three migrants who had managed to evade the Mexican National Guard and cross the Rio Grande onto U.S. territory walk along a border wall set back from the geographical border, in El Paso. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez, File)

The Department of Homeland Security is moving $271 million from other agencies such as FEMA and the U.S. Coast Guard to increase the number of beds for detained immigrants and support its policy forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases play out.

The news comes as hurricane season is ramping up and Tropical Storm Dorian is heading toward Puerto Rico. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the move “stunningly reckless.”

The sprawling 240,000-person Homeland Security Department includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the new Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in addition to immigration agencies.

It is not uncommon for unassigned funds to be transferred between agencies under the same department as the fiscal year ends. Last year around the same time, about $200 million was transferred, including $10 million from FEMA that prompted major criticism from Democrats.

Homeland Security officials said in a statement Tuesday they would transfer $155 million to create temporary facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border for holding hearings with the aim of moving asylum cases through the system faster.

The government has sent more than 30,000 people back to Mexico to wait out their immigration cases in an effort to deter migrants from making a dangerous journey to the U.S. and ease the crush of families from Central America that has vastly strained the system.

Asylum seekers generally had been released into the U.S. and allowed to work, but many Trump administration officials believe migrants take advantage of the laws and stop showing up to court. Lawyers for migrants waiting in Mexico have reported major problems reaching clients and getting them to the U.S. for their hearings. And some of the locations in Mexico where migrants are sent are violent and unsafe.

The money will come out of unobligated money from the base disaster relief fund at FEMA, lawmakers said.

Democratic House members strongly disagreed and accused DHS of going around their specific appropriations.

Pelosi said, “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 chairwoman of the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, said the reprogramming would support “inhumane” programs and take away necessary funding for other agencies.

“I am greatly concerned that during the course of this administration, there has been a growing disconnect between the will of Congress … and the implementation of the Department’s immigration enforcement operations,” she said in a statement.

Homeland Security officials will also transfer $116 million to fund detention bed space for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Congress allocated 45,000 beds for detention, but as of Aug. 24, ICE was detaining 54,344 people. Congress specifically did not authorize additional ICE funding for detention beds when it approved an emergency supplemental funding request of about $1.3 billion from Homeland Security to manage the huge increase in migrants.

“Given the rise of single adults crossing the border, ICE has already had to increase the number of detention beds above what Congress funded,” according to the DHS statement. Without the funding increase ICE can’t keep up with apprehensions by Border Patrol.

“This realignment of resources allows DHS to address ongoing border emergency crisis … while minimizing the risk to overall DHS mission performance,” according to the statement.

More than 860,000 people have been encountered at the Southern border this budget year, a decade-long high. Of that, 432,838 were in families — last year for the whole fiscal year there were only 107,212 in families. The increase has caused vast overcrowding in border facilities and reports of fetid, filthy conditions and children held for weeks in temporary facilities not meant to hold anyone for longer than a few days.

As Tropical Storm Dorian approached the Caribbean and gathered strength, it threatened to turn into a small hurricane that forecasters said could affect the northern Windward Islands and Puerto Rico in upcoming days. Late Tuesday, President Donald Trump declared an emergency in Puerto Rico, ordering federal assistance to the island.

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Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump considered mass deportation of immigrant families

Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Homeland Security officials considered arresting thousands of migrant families who had final deportation orders and removing them from the U.S. in a flashy show of force, but the idea was tabled as the Trump administration grappled with straining resources and a growing number of Central Americans crossing the border.

Two Homeland Security officials and two other people familiar with the proposal described it to The Associated Press. They were not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

The idea was to arrest parents and children in 10 cities with large populations of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, specifically New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, they said, without naming others.

The proposal, first reported by The Washington Post, was meant to send a message and possibly deter others from coming across the border, they said.

But then-Immigrations and Customs Enforcement head Ron Vitiello and then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen put the proposal aside over concerns about diverting resources from the border, a lack of detention space and the possibility of renewed public outrage over treatment of families.

The Trump administration separated children from parents at the southern border last summer, a move that prompted mass outrage and criticism that the U.S. was abandoning its humanitarian role and harming children. Immigration experts say the separations, which were halted last June, did little to stop migrant crossings and, in fact, may have prompted more people to come.

The number of border crossings has risen dramatically in the past few months to more than 100,000 per month. More than half are families who cannot be easily sent back to their home countries. Border officials say they are out of resources and manpower and can’t keep up.

President Donald Trump has railed against the growing numbers and is furious that he has been unable to stem the flow of migrants despite his campaign promise to clamp down on immigration. The White House recently asked Congress for $4.5 billion in supplemental funding, mostly for humanitarian aid and shelter space for migrant children. ICE planes have been used over the past few days to fly migrants to less-crowded locations along the border for processing.

The tabled plan — it remains under consideration — included fast-tracking immigration cases to allow judges to order deportations for those who didn’t show up for hearings. It also prioritized the newest cases in order to deport people faster.

A senior administration official said enforcing the judicial orders to remove nearly 1 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally remains a top priority. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

Vitiello’s nomination to lead the immigration agency was pulled by the White House in a move last month that caught lawmakers and even the most senior Homeland Security officials off guard. Nielsen resigned just a few days later.

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Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
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U.S. not ready to manage ‘zero tolerance’ immigration

People lining up to cross into the United States to begin the process of applying for asylum near the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Immigration officials were not prepared this summer to manage the consequences of a “zero tolerance” policy at the Southwest border, which resulted in the separation of nearly 3,000 children from their parents, Homeland Security’s watchdog said in a report made public on Tuesday.

The resulting confusion along the border led to misinformation among separated parents who did not know why they had been taken from their children or how to reach them, longer detention for children at border facilities meant for short-term stays, and difficulty in identifying and reuniting families. And backlogs at ports of entry may have pushed some into illegally crossing the U.S-Mexico border, the report found.

While the Trump administration had been widely criticized for the policy, the criticism previously came mostly from political opponents and not from independent, nonpolitical investigators.

Investigators with Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General compiled the report after speaking with about 50 immigration employees, plus 17 detainees and parents who had been separated from their children and later released. They also reviewed documents and data. Homeland Security is the umbrella department for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Homeland Security officials say the report illustrates how difficult it is to enforce broken and poorly written immigration laws. The inspector general, they said, wrongly mixed up what happens to migrants caught crossing illegally between borders with migrants who come to legal ports of entry seeking asylum.

“This administration will no longer turn a blind eye to illegal immigration and will continue to refer illegal border crossers for prosecution. We are committed to enforcing the rule of law and ensuring that there are consequences for illegal actions,” Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said.

Illegally crossing the U.S. border had already been a criminal charge, but authorities had previously avoided large-scale family separation. But the Trump administration has made curbing immigration a major focus, working to harden what administration officials say are lax laws.

In May, officials began criminally prosecuting anyone caught crossing the border illegally. Children were separated from their parents as the adults went through criminal proceedings.

The move prompted international outrage and President Donald Trump eventually signed an executive order stopping the separations. A lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of parents, and a judge ordered the families reunited. That process is ongoing, though the government has said it has reunited all eligible parents with children.

“Thousands of children are living with trauma because of the Trump administration’s family separation fiasco,” said Lee Gelernt, lead lawyer on the ACLU case. “Some parents may never see their children again. This report shows not just the cruelty of the Trump administration’s actions, but also its ineptitude and historic failure of foresight in comprehending the devastating effects and fallout from this policy.”

Children are only supposed to be held for 72 hours before being transferred to the custody of officials with Health and Human Services, which manages the care of migrant children and must adhere to strict policies governing their welfare. But, at least one child was held for 25 days in a Border Patrol facility.

During the weeklong period of fieldwork by the inspector general’s office, the average time children spent in a Border Patrol facility was 65 hours — but one child remained for 12 days. The delay meant Border Patrol officers couldn’t focus on their work.

“Instead of patrolling and securing the border, officers had to supervise and take care of children,” the report said.

Immigration officials also struggled to identify, track and reunify families because agency systems were not properly integrated, according to the report. Three different agencies were involved: U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials police the borders and ports where migrants come. Adults are turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement where their asylum claims are reviewed, and children must be turned over to U.S. Health and Human Services.

Border Patrol agents also didn’t ensure that children who were too young or otherwise unable to talk could be correctly identified with a wrist bracelet or other identifier. Most children weren’t photographed — any easy way to link them with parents.

Some parents were not properly advised of what was happening, and lacked access to communicate with their children, the report found, though some facilities worked to change that.

At the same time zero tolerance was being enforced, Border Protection saw a rise in asylum seekers coming to ports of entry, filling holding facilities to capacity. As a result, some officers told asylum seekers to go back and wait for space to open up, and that may have pushed some families to cross illegally, the report found.

Democrats said the report was damning.

“The report confirms that the Administration outright misled Congress and the American people for months about its cruel family separation policy,” Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said.

A separate inspector general report on the conditions at border patrol facilities found that despite some being unclean, detainees had proper access to food, bathrooms and clean bedding. The report found no issues with temperatures inside the facilities, though migrants often complain of freezing temperatures.

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Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Houston contributed to this report.

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