Migrant Detention Costs The U.S. Government $500,000 A Day Per Facility, Benefits For-Profit Corporations

An American flag flies over the Homestead facility.
Joe Skipper / Getty Images

With the release of new federal spending data, the true cost and purpose of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy has come into sharper focus. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) currently oversees over a hundred detention facilities for undocumented migrant children in 17 states, costing the United States government over two billion dollars since 2015, according to Quartz.

One such shelter, the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida, has cost HHS nearly $140 million since the end of February. This cost translates to over $17 million a month, and over $500,000 per day. The facility houses between 500 and 1,350 unaccompanied minors, and entered the national consciousness last summer when HHS denied entry to U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz when they tried to visit the facility, according to The Miami Herald. The shelter, a former Job Corps site under the Obama administration, was closed by the Trump administration in 2017 — before being reopened in February under the stewardship of Comprehensive Health Services, Inc., a private company based in Cape Canaveral.

Comprehensive Health Services was founded in 1975 as a company that offered medical testing on job sites, later branching out to also provide health care during hurricanes and other natural disasters. In 2015, the company began offering childcare services, contracting with the U.S. government to run shelters for unaccompanied migrant children. In 2017, the company was busted for intentionally double-billing the IRS, and paid a $3.8 million fine, according to The Department of Justice.

Nonetheless, the company was engaged to run the Homestead facility a year later, a facility that is not subject to state regulations nor annual state inspections because it is considered a “temporary” facility. Temporary facilities like Homestead typically cost $750 per child per day, which is about triple the cost of a permanent shelter.

Generally, minors who come to the United States unaccompanied are between 14 and 17 years old. However, the children who are forcibly separated from their guardian are typically much younger than that, and may be deeply traumatized. These minors require an entirely different level of support, and the Trump administration’s separation policy came so suddenly — and without adequate preparation — that HHS was immediately overloaded in its responsibilities for these children.

“It isn’t that it’s an unnecessary expense,” said Michelle Brane of the Women’s Refugee Commission. “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.”

A shelter like Homestead requires 24-hour staffing, and must have high resident-to-staff ratios to control costs. There is a school on site, which requires teachers and supplies. The children need clothes, food, and medical care. To make matters worse, the short-term nature of operating a “temporary” shelter leaves the employer with no leverage in hiring new employees, forcing them to pay higher salaries.

“I hear people all the time saying ‘We have to take care of our own kids'”, said Traci LaLiberte, executive director at the Center For Advanced Studies In Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota. “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.”

While billions of dollars are being poured into facilities like Homestead, millions of dollars from other programs are being siphoned away. Among the programs losing funding are Head Start ($16.7 million), the National Cancer Institute ($13.3 million), and the National Institutes of Health ($87.3 million), Quartz reports.

Additionally, the Trump administration has discontinued other programs like the Family Case Management Program, which provided immigrant families with case workers who helped the families through the immigration process at an average cost of $38 per day. Conservatives decried the FCMP as a “catch and release” program, but the program featured a 99% compliance rate for ICE check-ins, according to the Office of the Inspector General, and a 100% compliance rate for court appearances.