Trump mulls deploying emergency disaster workers to detention centers

President Trump is considering deploying a 1,000-person force usually used for relief efforts after hurricanes and other natural disasters to help staff overcrowded detention centers for migrants, according to people briefed on the matter.

The highly unusual move could diffuse the cost of sending additional personnel to assist with detention centers dealing with a wave of migrants who are being held after crossing the U.S. border.

“It frees up more resources,” said a source familiar with the discussions.

{mosads}But it also would put trained federal employees from other parts of the government — who signed up to help disaster victims — in a new and controversial role.

The U.S. Border Patrol in recent days has reportedly released hundreds of migrants from detention centers in Texas due to overcrowding at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. Officials told the Los Angeles Times that releases will occur daily until there is a manageable level of detainees at the facilities.

The detention centers for migrants and asylum-seekers who crossed the border have become a flashpoint in the immigration debate. Democrats have excoriated the Trump administration for separating families, holding children for prolonged periods and treating migrants in ways that they say constitutes neglect. Two adults and two children have died while in custody.

Trump is contemplating bolstering capacity by using the Surge Capacity Force — an entity created by Congress in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for times when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs extra staff on short notice.

The statute allows the Department of Homeland Security, which houses FEMA, to “borrow” trained federal employees from other parts of the government who volunteer for the effort in the event of an emergency.

The Surge Capacity Force has been activated only twice since its inception, both times for major hurricanes. The first was in 2012, for Hurricane Sandy, and the second was in 2017, after a trio of brutal hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — left FEMA stretched thin.

But its use could further anger critics who accuse Trump of abusing presidential emergency powers to achieve his political agenda. A deployment would also raise questions about whether FEMA might be left without a backup plan in the event of another major natural disaster.

Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to requests for comment.

Consideration of the deployment is taking place amid the backdrop of catastrophic flooding that affected several Midwestern states. Vice President Pence visited Nebraska this week to survey damage, and that flooding followed deadly tornadoes in Alabama and unusually destructive wildfires in California.

For its part, California has been taking the opposite approach to Trump’s, pulling 110 National Guard troops from duty along the border to help combat wildfires.

Trump last month declared a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border in order to redirect $8.7 billion in funds toward building his proposed border wall. Congress, which was willing to appropriate $1.4 billion for fencing, voted to overturn the emergency declaration, but Trump vetoed that measure.

Trump has argued that the influx of migrants and asylum-seekers along the border poses a national security risk. Starting late last year, he deployed a contingent of troops to the border that maxed out at 5,900 before dropping significantly in 2019. Last month Trump increased troop levels to about 4,350 for a three-month deployment.

Administration officials have pointed to the number of people apprehended crossing the border as evidence of a crisis. In February, that number spiked to 66,450, a 38 percent jump from January, though still well below figures regularly seen in the 1990s.

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