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Trump Plans To Shift Millions In Federal Disaster Aid To Pay For Detention Beds


The Trump administration is shifting more than $100 million of federal disaster aid to help pay for more detention beds for migrants. The decision set off an outcry just as Florida's bracing for Hurricane Dorian. But as NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez reports, the move is raising fresh questions about the Department of Homeland Security's mission in the Trump era.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: The decision to take money away from other parts of the Department of Homeland Security has reignited criticism that the administration is overly focused on border and immigration enforcement. In addition to shifting the disaster relief money, the Trump administration is taking money from the Coast Guard, TSA and a newly established cybersecurity agency. David Lapan is a former Trump official and DHS press secretary who says the move sends a clear message.

DAVID LAPAN: This is where you get to the point that the Department of Homeland Security, which has all of these various missions to secure the homeland, has turned into, under President Trump, the Department of Border Enforcement or the Department of Immigration Enforcement, if you will.

ORDOÑEZ: This shift in resources comes as the department is helping states protect their election infrastructure from cyberattacks.

LAPAN: Given the nature of the cyber threat against the United States from Russian and other actors, you would think that you'd be trying to strengthen your capabilities and capacities in this area rather than detract from them.

ORDOÑEZ: When the Department of Homeland Security was created after the September 11 terrorist attacks, it was to help coordinate the many different agencies that work to protect the United States. At the time, President Bush said the new department would help the United States defend itself against the dangers of a new era.


GEORGE W BUSH: With my signature, this act of Congress will create a new Department of Homeland Security, ensuring that our efforts to defend this country are comprehensive and united.

ORDOÑEZ: But there has been a long debate about whether it was right to bring together so many agencies with different missions. And binding them together in one massive department has also made it easier to shift money toward Trump's signature issue - immigration. Trump signaled that shift this spring when he shook up leadership at the department. He pushed out secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and pulled the nomination of Ron Vitiello to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But we're going in a tougher direction. We want to go in a tougher direction.

ORDOÑEZ: Speaking on background, a senior DHS official said the border is the department's top priority and the administration must be able to shift resources to address the border emergency. But he said no money is being taken away from election security efforts. Jessica Vaughan is a director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that backs the administration's tough immigration policies. She says Congress has given the president the authority to decide how best to move around some resources.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: None of these agency organizations are set in stone, and they shouldn't be because we need the federal government to be able to respond to challenges that change over time.

ORDOÑEZ: There is no question that border enforcement is an essential security priority, says Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at DHS. But she says focusing on just one security challenge means ignoring other vulnerabilities.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: When Hurricane Katrina happened, the apparatus realized that if you focus solely on stopping 19 guys from getting on four airplanes again, you're not going to be able to save an American city from drowning.

ORDOÑEZ: Former Trump DHS official David Lapan says you just have to follow the money. In Washington, he says, funding illustrates what's important and what's not.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.