The federal agency charged with enforcing immigration law keeps running short on cash, so federal officials keep taking money from other government sources — notably the agency that handles hurricane relief — to pay the bills.
It’s a practice that’s come under sharp criticism from Congress’ watchdog agency.
Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, has helped the transfer effort in a big way. This summer, he was one of two lawmakers to approve a $169 million transfer to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency from other agencies, including $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees disaster relief.
But even before that transfer, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office was wary of ICE’s finances. It found in April that ICE was often unable to provide documentation to justify its budget proposals.
“Without a documented review process for reviewing the accuracy of its budget request, ICE is not positioned to ensure the credibility of its budget requests,” the GAO wrote.
Jennifer Elzea, an ICE spokeswoman, told McClatchy that forecasting the ICE budget was an imprecise science.
“Predicting detainee population is a complex challenge that takes into account variables like migration flows, geo-political climate, and immigration policy, which can change dramatically from year to year,” she said.
Elzea said ICE is implementing the GAO’s recommendations to ensure accurate budget estimates, but she did not directly answer a question about whether the issues outlined in the report played a role in the agency’s need for more funding this year.
FEMA is currently helping residents of areas hit hard by Hurricane Florence, which this month battered the Carolinas. The agency appears to have enough money in its disaster relief fund to handle the storm’s immediate aftermath, but Congress may still need to pass a relief package.
Trump administration officials insist the funds transfer will not affect the relief effort.
But the movement of cash to ICE has inspired a fierce political backlash both because of the storm and the string of controversies the agency already faces related to the separation of migrant families at the southern border earlier this year.
“Just as hurricane season is starting — because it generally starts June 1 — the administration is working hard to find funds for detention camps... I find it extraordinary,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow when he revealed the transfer earlier this month.
The June decision to shift the money to ICE came two months after the GAO found ICE repeatedly made errors during its budgeting process and required multiple fund transfers to covers its bills between the 2014 and 2017 fiscal years— a period that spans both the Obama and Trump administrations but does not include the most recent transfer.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the GAO report revealed an endemic problem with how ICE manages its finances.
“Clearly, there’s a challenge in budgeting for ICE that they have not figured out and both the administration and Congress have not figured out… So often it seems that Congress writes the check and walks away,” said Ellis, whose group advocates for stronger oversight of government spending.
The shifting of dollars to ICE may have been overlooked in past years, but it’s getting loads of attention now because of the FEMA link.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE and FEMA, and Yoder’s campaign have dismissed the controversy, contending that the dollars were designated for administrative costs and their transfer would not impact FEMA’s disaster response because the agency’s $26 billion disaster relief fund was left untouched.
“Democrats like Kevin’s opponent would rather see ICE abolished and money spent on paper clips and staplers in federal office buildings in Washington, D.C., than on keeping our nation safe by deporting dangerous criminals who are here illegally,” Yoder’s spokesman C.J. Grover said earlier this month.
Ellis disputed the claim that the money would not have gone toward the agency’s disaster-related duties.
“It’s sort of a false choice that the campaign is offering there… Could those millions of dollars be used for paper clips? Yes. But it could also be used for prevention and response as well,” Ellis said.
The funds pulled from FEMA came from the agency’s Operations and Support fund, which according to budget documents pays for disaster mitigation, preparedness programs and response and recovery, Ellis noted.
“Clearly, they were looking for the couch cushions and shaking down all the agencies in DHS to cobble together a big chunk of money to go to ICE. Clearly, the administration would like to see more money going to ICE than what Congress agreed to,” Ellis said.
Yoder’s office said the money was from an administrative account for the department that handles response and recovery, maintaining that actual recovery efforts are funded through the disaster relief fund.
Tyler Houlton, a DHS spokesman, said 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.”
But he did not respond to follow-up questions asking for more clarity on what the money would have been used for if it had not been transferred.
Ellis said that the fact that the transfer was requested on June 30 — three months before the end of the fiscal year on Saturday — undercuts the administration’s claim that the “use it or lose it” money would have gone unspent if it had not been transferred.
The controversy has reverberated in landlocked Kansas where Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, faces a tough re-election challenge from Democrat Sharice Davids in a district that’s considered a toss-up by national election trackers.
Yoder was elevated to the House chairmanship just six weeks before DHS made the June 30 request to shift the $169 million to ICE.
It was not the first time that the department has had to shuffle funds to cover the cost of running ICE’s detention facilities.
For the 2017 fiscal year, the agency requested $2.2 billion for the detention system’s annual budget. Congress okayed $2.6 billion, but ICE still required fund transfers to make it through the end of that fiscal year. It ended up with a final budget of nearly $3 billion for the detention system, according to the GAO report.
But the GAO found “a number of inconsistencies and errors in ICE’s calculations for its congressional budget justifications,” noting that a mathematical error caused the agency to underestimate the costs of immigration detention by $129 million in 2015.
“While ICE officials stated their budget documents undergo multiple reviews to ensure accuracy, ICE was not able to provide documentation of such reviews,” the GAO concluded.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross border policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, said that these fund transfers are common throughout the federal government, but ICE has been particularly reliant on the practice since before Trump took office.
“On one hand it is a kind of typical reprogramming request. On the other hand, ICE has done this a lot lately… What’s the fiscal accountability that the agency has that they keep coming back to Congress for more money?” Brown said.
“They’ve overstepped their budget in detention funds in past years and it’s happened under previous administrations, too,” she said.
Yoder’s office said that as DHS budget chairman he would work with ICE “to find ways to improve their estimation of costs to make sure the agency has the resources it needs to succeed in its mission.”
The agency’s fiscal year 2019 request includes $2.8 billion to expand its detention capacity to cover a daily adult population of 49,500 adults and a daily family population of 2,500, she said.
Brown said that the controversy over family separations at the border has put ICE under a microscope, which is why this year’s transfers are getting more attention than previous years.
“In that context, any movement of money to ICE is going to be politically controversial,” she said.