Last week, as Hurricane Dorian formed out in the Atlantic, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it was shifting $155 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This means that money previously allocated for disaster relief — to help rebuild after a hurricane, for example — is now being diverted to fund an increased number of beds for the growing number of ICE detainees.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, $155 million out of a more than $4 trillion federal budget is hardly more than a drop in a rather large bucket. But this diversion of dollars isn’t only about the money; it’s also about a very explicit statement of priorities. This administration is making it abundantly obvious to anyone who hasn’t, somehow, already gotten the message, that it’s all about attacking immigrants, all the time — and it will stop at nothing to get its way on immigration.
The diversion of $155 million is part of a larger pattern: Trump declared a national emergency as a way to pave the way for the seizing of billions of dollars in military construction and counter-narcotics funds to fund his southern border wall. He ordered the hiring of 5,000 additional border patrol officers (though Customs and Border Protection has, so far, struggled to fulfill this order). He purportedly discussed ordering the seizure of lands along the border for the building of his wall, and promised to pardon government officials who participate in this illegal operation. He repeatedly attempted to illegally bottle up asylum seekers in camps south of the border in Mexico, in violation of both domestic law and international obligations. He publicly mused about using executive action to somehow void the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution, which set in stone the principle of birthright citizenship.
And the administration announced last week that the humanitarian waivers allowing desperately ill undocumented children to remain in the United States without fear of deportation during their medical treatment would be ended — a policy change that was then partially withdrawn over the Labor Day weekend following intense public criticism. It was, however, by no means a complete reversal: the government will allow those already on waivers to continue on them, but will not process new applications, thus further corroding any sense of the U.S. as a place of safe harbor for would-be immigrants in the years to come.
In other words, the law, the constitution and simple human decency be damned, Trump is hell-bent on imposing his nativist agenda and political priorities in the run-up to the 2020 election.
The dollars diverted from FEMA will be used to help fund the ever-expanding incarceration machine that ICE is presiding over. That incarceration maw has been growing for decades, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, as has the deportation machine; but over the past three years it has been turbocharged. ICE, at Trump’s behest, is capturing and incarcerating ever more immigrants, in all corners of the country, is holding them for longer, and is seeking to release fewer individuals and families while their cases wend their way through the courts. Last month, the administration unveiled plans — certain to be challenged in court — to allow for the indefinite detention of children while their cases are being processed.
ICE is now holding more than 52,000 people in detention. That is an all-time high, despite Congress last year passing a bill to limit the numbers of people ICE could detain at any one time to roughly 45,000. There are ICE detention centers in all 50 states, with the for-profit detention industry making particular strides in recent months in southern states, such as Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
In real time, and in plain view, an immigration-detention-industrial complex is rapidly expanding.
It is deeply intertwined with the prison-industrial complex — constructed at such vast financial and moral cost during the “war on drugs” and “war on crime” years of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s — which lives on in full force today. And in the same way as the infrastructure of the prison-industrial complex has proven extraordinarily durable, and the consequences of the prison-building, mass incarceration years have proven extraordinarily long-lasting, so we should expect the immigrant-detention system that is now being built to be equally difficult to dismantle and equally destructive of community.
That the announcement of the diversion of FEMA funds to ICE detention facilities came at the same time that Hurricane Dorian began forming, and during days when the early forecasts suggested it would hit Puerto Rico, may have been a coincidence. But, if it was, Trump lost no time in helping his base draw the connections.
Trump has made it clear that he sees no U.S. responsibility to the Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria — despite the fact that they are legally U.S. citizens. At about the same time as DHS diverted FEMA dollars to ICE, Trump went on a Twitter tirade against Puerto Rico for its misuse of FEMA moneys after Hurricane Maria. “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!” he wrote. He then further lambasted the islanders for not thanking him sufficiently following his response to Hurricane Maria.
In previous times, that vile tirade alone might have doomed a presidency. In the Trump era, however, it barely registered on the Richter scale of outrage.
Which brings me back to the FEMA money. In an epoch of climate change, when epic disasters that statisticians used to estimate would only occur once in 500 years are now happening on a regular basis, it ought to be an urgent priority of any administration to bulk up the emergency response systems. Instead, in a desperately short-sighted and cruel move, Trump’s team is raiding its reserves to fuel its anti-immigrant crusade.