The full costs of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy are coming into sharper relief as contracts are renewed and federal spending data is made available.
Newly released government figures paint a picture of runaway spending on detention facilities, which has siphoned millions of dollars away from, among other programs, Head Start ($16.7 million), the National Cancer Institute ($13.3 million), and the National Institutes of Health ($87.3 million). The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) oversees 100-plus shelters for unaccompanied migrant children in 17 states at a cost of more than $2 billion since 2015, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight.
“The costs of the administration’s policy of separating families went, and continues to go, far beyond the trauma that it causes on all ends,” Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the nonprofit Women’s Refugee Commission, told Quartz. “And we haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg.”
One of the most talked-about children’s shelters in the system has been the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida, where HHS initially denied entry to US Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz when they tried to visit the facility in June. HHS has so far spent nearly $140 millionsince the end of February to house between 500 and 1,350 unaccompanied minors at Homestead. That translates to more than $17 million a month, or slightly more than $500,000 per day, to keep them at Homestead. The overall outlay at the shelter may reach a quarter of a billion dollars by the third week of November, when the current operator’s eight-month term expires.
The Homestead shelter, a former Job Corps site, was opened in 2016 by the Obama administration, closed in 2017 by the Trump administration, then reopened again in early 2018.
Between February 22 and July 6, 2018 alone, HHS paid Comprehensive Health Services Inc., a private company based in Cape Canaveral, $50.7 million to keep up to 1,000 migrant children at Homestead.
On July 7, a new four-month contract potentially worth $187.4 millionfor 1,350 beds went into effect. HHS has so far paid out a little over $88.5 million of that total to Comprehensive Health.
But despite the high cost of keeping the Homestead child shelter running, child welfare advocates say family- or community-based mechanisms are far cheaper and have better outcomes for all involved.
“This is completely contrary to what the American public thinks is the answer”
Comprehensive Health was founded in 1975 as a company that performed medical testing on job sites. It has also provided healthcare during hurricanes and other natural disasters.
In 2015, Comprehensive Health got into the childcare business, receiving up to $388 million from the US government to run “temporary shelters housing children who had entered the U.S. unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian.” Two years later, Comprehensive Health Services paid a $3.8 million fine for knowingly double-billing the IRS. Still, it won the contract to run Homestead almost exactly a year later. Homestead is not subject tostate regulations and annual state inspections because it is considered a “temporary” facility.
Temporary facilities like Homestead typically cost roughly $750 per child, per day, or about triple that of a permanent shelter.
But a former healthcare worker at Homestead told the Miami Heraldthat he was “blown away by the web of subcontractors” operating there, “to the point that he believed Comprehensive Health Services was being wasteful in its spending.” One subcontractor is Brookstone Emergency Services, which also does business as American Canyon Solutions and is assisting with facility management at a cost of up to 13.2 million. And General Dynamics, the company behind the F-16 Fighting Falcon, is there right now providing one month’s worth of training and technical assistance for just under $900,000. Base pay for youth care workers at Homestead is roughly $16 per hour.
In an email, a spokesperson for Comprehensive Health Services said, “Our contractual relationships will not be discussed. No interviews will be given.” [Ed: emphasis theirs.]
Generally, minors who come to the United States unaccompanied are between 14 and 17 years old, explained Michelle Brané. But the separated ones are usually much younger than that and may be deeply traumatized, which requires an entirely different level of support. With its family separation policy, the Trump administration increased the number of very young children in HHS custody at a time when the agency was not prepared to handle such an influx.
“It isn’t that it’s an unnecessary expense,” said Brané. “It’s not even that the contractors involved are charging exorbitant fees. The issue here is that it costs money to care for these children. The administration chose a tactic that was specifically intended to be cruel, and is also extremely expensive.”
According to Brané, polls conducted by the Women’s Refugee Commission have found that “this is completely contrary to what the American public thinks is the answer.” To her, the most obvious near-term solution is to simply keep families together as before, releasing them to community-based alternatives such as the now-defunct Family Case Management Program (FCMP).
FCMP was launched by the Obama administration in January 2016, and was run by contractor Geo Care, a division of private prison operator The Geo Group. The FCMP program provided immigrant families with case workers who helped them through the immigration process. Some right-wingers maligned FCMP as “catch-and-release,” but it had a 99% compliance rate for ICE check-ins and an astonishing 100% compliance rate for court appearances. It cost about $38 a day.
On June 8, 2017, the Trump administration shut it down. Those who disagreed with that decision included GOP senator Lindsey Graham.
“No reason was given,” said Brané. “In fact, they ended it before the contract with the company running it was even up.”
HHS did not respond to requests for comment.
“The government isn’t a good parent”
A shelter like Homestead requires round-the-clock staffing, at high resident-to-staff ratios, Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota, told Quartz. There’s a school on site, which requires teachers and supplies. The children need clothes, food, medical care–including trauma-informed mental health counseling–and more.
A hiring announcement posted three days ago by Comprehensive Health lists available positions including case manager, clinical counselor, educational instructor, youth care worker, and licensed vocational nurse.
Yet another factor adding to the expense of operating a “temporary” shelter like Homestead is the abbreviated contracts that come along with that, meaning HHS has little leverage to negotiate long-term discounts or agreements.
Among the many complications associated with unaccompanied minors under the government’s care is that most residential providers in the US are accustomed to serving adolescents.
“But these are little kids,” LaLiberte said. “It’s easy for the government to hire contractors and say, ‘Take care of this,’ but the reality is, the government isn’t a good parent.”
LaLiberte described institutional settings like Homestead as “so incredibly contrary to the idea of good care.” While the property is ringed by security fencing, Homestead and other child shelters are intended, theoretically at least, to feel somewhat homey.
“I hear people all the time saying, ‘We have to take care of our own kids,'” said LaLiberte. “Well, yes, we do need to take care of American kids who are poor and don’t have a place to live, and we have to take care of these kids because we’ve contributed to creating this situation.”