Why The Government Keeps Saying It's Running Out Of Money To Shelter Migrant Kids

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Congress is currently embroiled in a showdown over an emergency funding bill that would allocate an additional $2.88 billion toward housing unaccompanied migrant children, according to Politico, as funding for sheltering them is expected to run out next month. The actual cost of housing migrant children a bit unclear; the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has said that the daily bill for taking care of detained children varies widely. An immigration policy expert tells Bustle that there's one key reason why the department may be desperate for funds.

Mark Greenberg, who for three years under former President Obama led HHS' Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR), tells Bustle that there are two kinds of shelters that ORR uses to house migrant children: standard shelters and influx shelters. According to media reports, standard shelters cost about $250 a day per child. Influx shelters, which Greenberg says are meant to function as emergency, overflow facilities, cost upward of $700 a day per child, according to Reuters.

Influx shelters have to be set up very quickly, and that's the principal reason why they cost more, according to Greenberg. He cited costs associated with setting up shelters in remote facilities, housing staff in nearby hotels, and "capital costs for whatever needs to be done to make it suitable to be a shelter." Bringing in water and food to such places can also increase the daily expenditures, he adds.

"What all of that underscores it is that it would be vastly better, both for children and the taxpayer, to expand the standard shelters, which cost much less, but are also subject to the protections that come from the state licensing and monitoring," Greenberg tells Bustle.

Standard shelter licensing requirements will vary from state to state, he says, but they generally "will ensure routine monitoring to ensure compliance with requirements of state law." Since standard shelters are held to more rigorous standards, and securing state licensing for those facilities tends to take between three and six months, according to Greenberg, influx shelters are kept as an option. He notes that the Obama administration used influx shelters in "very limited circumstances where there was a sudden increase in arriving kids."

In the past year, the Trump administration has faced nearly non-stop criticism for how it's handled an influx of migrants coming into the country through the Southern border. Initially, that criticism was over its "zero-tolerance" policy for illegal border crossings, which required that all U.S. attorneys working in border states prosecute every illegal border crossing case sent their way — something that hadn't been required up until that point. This policy triggered the ongoing family separation crisis, because children may not be held in jails alongside the older family members who crossed with them.

That criticism has intensified in recent weeks after a group of lawyers told The New York Times and the Associated Press about unsanitary conditions they witnessed at a Border Patrol station in Texas. On Tuesday, the Times reported that hundreds of migrant children were moved out of that facility. The paper reports that the children in that facility did not have "soap, clean clothes, or adequate food."

"We continue to experience a humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border of the United States, and the situation becomes more dire each day,” a spokeswoman for ORR told the paper. She said that the agency had asked Congress for $4.5 billion, suggesting that inadequate funding was to blame for the conditions in which the migrant children were kept.

Although HHS has said that it's desperately in need of additional funding, some progressive members of Congress have said that they will not support the department's request unless it agrees to additional oversight.

"Reminder this admin is CHOOSING to round up refugees seeking asylum, fighting to not give children toothpaste or soap & making people sleep on dirt floors," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted, linking to a joint statement released with Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). "They say it’s bc of a lack of [money]. You know what saves money? Not putting masses of people in internment in the first place."

What this will mean for children being held for the short-term in Border Patrol facilities, or else in ORR shelters for the longer-term, isn't quite clear. But as Congress dukes it out over the funding request, the Trump administration appears determined to continue prosecuting undocumented migrants who cross the southern border.