FEMA to ICE fund transfer draws Democratic fire as Florence death toll rises

Nearly $10 million has been shifted from the disaster relief agency over to the agency responsible for detaining and deporting immigrants.

Troops work to pull a truck out of flood waters that washed away on Chicken Road outside of Lumberton, North Carolina, Monday, September 17, 2018. CREDIT: Eamon Queeney/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Troops work to pull a truck out of flood waters that washed away on Chicken Road outside of Lumberton, North Carolina, Monday, September 17, 2018. CREDIT: Eamon Queeney/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Democratic lawmakers are probing a Trump administration official’s role in the transfer of funds intended for FEMA, the disaster relief agency, over to ICE, the agency overseeing much of the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants. The scrutiny comes as the remnants of Hurricane Florence continue to plague North and South Carolina, where the death toll has been steadily rising.

In a letter sent Thursday, four Senate Democrats asked Kathy Kraninger to elaborate on her role in a controversial decision to move $9.8 million from the budget of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), revealed just days before Florence made landfall.

Kraninger is the current program associate director for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and President Donald Trump’s choice to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). She is widely seen as one of the architects of the family separation crisis that has played out on the U.S.-Mexico border as Border Patrol agents have separated immigrant children from their parents.

The September 13 letter requests documents relating to Kraninger’s decision to transfer the funds, particularly ahead of the Atlantic hurricane season.

“The money was redirected from FEMA’s regional operations, response and recovery, mitigation, preparedness and protection, and mission support accounts in order to support ICE’s custody, transportation, and removal program related to its enforcement and removal operations,” the letter notes.


“Your approval of funds from critical initiatives, or your failure to prevent it, would suggest a pattern of mismanagement and an inability to appropriately prioritize the deployment of federal resources,” the senators continue.

The letter goes on to request that Kraninger provide a description of both her own and OMB’s role in the general process of reviewing fund transfers, as well as additional documentation pertaining to the specific FEMA to ICE fund transfer referenced. All emails and records related to OMB’s communication with those agencies as well as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and White House officials are also requested.

Signatories of the letter include Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown (OH); Jeff Merkley (OR); Catherine Cortez Masto (NV); and Bob Menendez (NJ).

The controversial fund transfer first came to the attention of many lawmakers last week, as Hurricane Florence — then a Category 4 storm — moved towards the Carolinas. A spokesperson for DHS has denied that any funds were moved from FEMA’s disaster and recovery efforts, but lawmakers have expressed skepticism.


Questions surrounding the funding decision will likely continue as the impacts of the storm become clearer. Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane and has since ebbed considerably in its ranking, but the storm’s heavy rains remain a threat to the region. Like last year’s Hurricane Harvey, Florence’s rains have proven devastating. At least 32 people have died in the few days since the storm made landfall, 25 of them in North Carolina.

That tragedy is compounded by a number of growing threats to both humans and the environment. There have been reports of a second breach at a coal ash site operated by Duke Energy, although the company has only confirmed one such breach and denied news of a second to ThinkProgress.

A nuclear power plant also operated by Duke has declared a low-level state of emergency, while the American Water Works Association has reported 28 water utilities in the region are currently under water-boil advisories. North Carolina’s hog lagoons also remain a stress point — at least one has breached, with at least another seven at capacity and set to breach as well.

Amid mounting risks, some residents across the region feel hit on all sides by the news of the fund transfer from FEMA to ICE. Advocates last week told ThinkProgress that immigrants in North Carolina fear that the very aid meant to help their state recover from Florence could instead be used to deport and detain members of their communities.

FEMA has notably suffered from both funding and staffing shortages. The agency acknowledged in an internal report released in July that a shortage of around 5,000 staffers contributed to massive missteps in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Official death counts linked to that storm have since been updated to 2,975.