President Donald Trump is considering siphoning billions of dollars from disaster relief programs in order to help fund his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, following a discussion between the president and top defense officials during Trump’s trip to the southern border Thursday.
Bypassing Congress, Trump could declare a national emergency and use $13.9 billion of Army Corps funding to build 315 miles of barrier, NBC News reported. Under the proposal, the pot of money Trump could dip into includes $2.4 billion allocated to water projects in California and $2.5 billion set aside for reconstruction projects in Puerto Rico. Both areas are still reeling and rebuilding from devastating wildfires and a catastrophic hurricane, respectively.
In a statement this week, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, called the potential move an “obscenity” and vowed to stop the president should he attempt to follow-through on it.
“Any suggestion that he use these funds to construct his wall is an obscenity. These funds were intended by Congress to be used for real emergencies and to help millions recover from hurricanes and other disasters,” Rep. Thompson said. “Under no circumstance are these funds to be used to fund the President[‘s] pet project so he can claim a win. There is no emergency on the border. If necessary, my colleagues and I will use every available method to stop him in this effort.”
Raiding aid for Puerto Rico is particularly troubling, considering the criticism the Trump administration has garnered from how it responded in aftermath of Hurricane Maria, with many Puerto Ricans renewing their calls for statehood, in the face of being treated like a colony.
Puerto Rico Gov. Richard Rosselló responded to reports of Trump potentially redirecting disaster relief funds on Friday. “No wall should be funded on the pain and suffering of U.S. citizens who have endured tragedy and loss through a natural disaster,” he said.
“Today it’s us, tomorrow it could be you,” he added.
For the thousands who have volunteered their time to help rebuild the island, the proposal is a slap in the face.
“Truthfully, it’s hard to find the words to explain the frustration I feel when I hear President Trump say he’ll divert $5 billion from emergency funds for the wall,” Noah Steinberg-Di Stefano, program associate for emergency operations and logistics at Lutheran World Relief, told ThinkProgress in an email.
“Just look at what is happening in the [United States] right now that is infinitely more deserving of emergency funds: the California wildfire fires that have displaced thousands of people from their homes and continue to threaten communities, the Flint Water crisis that still has not been resolved, the communities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands still recovering from Hurricane Maria,” Steinberg-Di Stefano said. “As someone whose work and life is dedicated to responding to humanitarian crisis, I can’t tell you how infuriating this is.”
It has been more than a year since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, and the island is far from recovered. Blue tarps still cover the roofs of many homes and the power grid is still unstable.
More than 600,000 Puerto Ricans who had their homes destroyed by the storm were denied individual and household assistance funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because they didn’t have the proper deeds to their homes. The thousands who chose to evacuate the island have similarly faced issues with FEMA. As ThinkProgress previously reported, the agency kicked more than 1,000 Puerto Rican families out of emergency shelters in hotels, leaving them in limbo.
Taking funds from residents and communities still trying to rebuild, advocates say, is unacceptable.
“Recovery dollars are still needed to stimulate a suffering economy and address critical needs such as housing and infrastructure,” Linda Delgado, director of government affairs at Oxfam America, told ThinkProgress in an email statement. “Attempting to re-direct money from real emergency needs in Puerto Rico and around the country for a vanity project is simply unforgivable and shameful.”