A woman poses for a photo after the passing of Tropical Storm Dorian in San Juan. There remains widespread doubt among residents and the wider Puerto Rican diaspora that the island is ready to handle an active hurricane season.
Trump used Hurricane Dorian to launch another series of reflexively puerile insults against Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and the island’s mainland-enabled corruption. Days earlier, science writers lunged at their keyboards to respond to news of the president’s query about breaking up the storms with nuclear weapons—a discredited idea that occasionally resurfaces during hurricane season. This all before an inch of rain from the storm hit Puerto Rico.
One man died preparing for the hurricane; the island escaped severe damage and its infrastructure was not tested. Still, some on Twitter disputed official reports about power outages—the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority claimed that that service was “better than a normal day.” The storm is moving toward Florida and is currently expected to make landfall as a major hurricane.
Dorian did lay bare more evidence of Trump’s continuing abuses of power and the inability of Congress to confront and end these repeated eruptions of presidential malpractice. Only Trump could manage to link his administration’s abuses of migrants in southern border concentration camps to a Puerto Rico threatened by its third hurricane in two years.
The administration ordered the Department of Homeland Security to move $271 million, including $155 million from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, to ICE to increase migrant detention and hearing facilities. Earlier this summer the department redirected $200 million from DHS agencies to ICE. In 2018, the department had steered roughly $10 million to ICE.
According to a letter from Democratic Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, under the continuing resolution funding the government, the 2019 ICE budget only supports detaining and housing an average daily population of 40,520 migrants. Yet the number of detention beds has increased from 44,000 to more than 46,000 during the fiscal year. By August, the number shot up to 55,000 even as the number of border crossings by single adults had significantly decreased. Meanwhile, Congresswoman Roybal-Allard noted, ICE workplace raids required additional detentions.
The funding transfers from FEMA and other agencies should have been signed off by Congress, since transfers boosted ICE funding above and beyond what Congress appropriated under the continuing resolution that funds agencies at the level of the previous year. Of course, since DHS did not seek permission, department officials also did not provide evidence of any “extraordinary circumstances that imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property” that, under the statute, should necessitate such transfers.
Instead, the Trump administration continues to run roughshod over the rule of law, keeping its critics flummoxed and providing reminders daily, if not several times a day, of the inability of Congress to stem the willful erosion of its own powers to check and balance the president. Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the FEMA-to-ICE transfers “stunningly reckless.” While other members of the House and Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also registered their own pro forma complaints, the outcry lasted scarcely a news cycle, allowing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues to backstop Trump’s flagrant abuses of executive powers for the greater glory of the party.
The only real offensive weapons in the House’s arsenal that its leaders are willing to deploy are its investigative powers. The House Committee on Homeland Security should move quickly to add the FEMA-to-ICE transfers to its docket of investigations on matters like the border camps and HUD funding irregularities on the island.
The FEMA drawdown means that when a more powerful hurricane hits Puerto Rico the agency will have even fewer resources available to deal with the aftermath. FEMA has already admitted that the agency was unprepared to deal with the 2017 hurricane season on the island and could not cope with the devastation in the wake of Irma and Maria. Meanwhile, there is a leadership void: FEMA administrator Brock Long left the agency in March shortly before the start of the June-to-November hurricane season. His replacement Jeffrey Byard, a FEMA associate administrator, has yet to be confirmed.
There remains widespread doubt among residents and the wider Puerto
Rican diaspora that the island is ready or able to handle an active hurricane season. The day before Dorian hit, FEMA struggled to coordinate some of the basics of emergency preparations like distributing loaner satellite phones to the island’s mayors. (The agency also had satellite phone snafus—not enough working phones—in 2017.) In July, thousands of expired bottles of water were discovered on private property 25 miles outside San Juan. A FEMA official noted that the matter was “under review.” (Thousands of bottles of water were also found on a runway in late 2018.)
Yet, the most harrowing fact of the ICE-FEMA-Puerto Rico case is this: Congress continues tolerate a president backed by an executive-branch law enforcement agency to terrorize, imprison, fail to protect and give due process to thousands of Spanish-speaking migrants. Congress also sees fit to ignore how the president castigates Puerto Ricans and their leaders at every opportunity, and blocks the flow of funding and supplies to the island—all in the face of hurricanes strengthened by warming seas, a phenomenon that he cannot fathom. If any predominately white population of comparable size suffered this kind of ongoing abuse and mistreatment, impeachment proceedings against the 45th president would begin tomorrow. It is dereliction of duty of the highest order.
When the annals of the Trump administration are dissected by historians, one of the sorriest chapters of the many that will vie for that distinction will be the plight of Puerto Rico. At a certain level, adapting to more intense and frequent climate changed-fueled storms might be easier to stomach than the torrents of ignorance and calculated harm flowing from the Oval Office.