The Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy has come under intense scrutiny for its separation of migrant families at the border. However, even though Donald Trump signed an executive order to end family separations last month, his administration must still contend with the longterm impact of the policy. According to Politico, the Department of Health and Human Services has had to divert funds to migrant family reunification from other public health emergencies and medical research, prompting concern from both Democrats and Republicans.
Politico reported that HHS has spent at least $40 million in the past two months to care for unaccompanied migrant children and to reunite them with their families. Politico's report estimated that housing for these migrant children costs up to $1.5 million per day, but steadily increasing costs have reportedly prompted HHS officials to transfer money from the department's other accounts to confront the consequences of the "zero-tolerance" policy.
This is not the first report indicating that HHS was considering the reallocation of funds to cover the costs of housing migrant children. Last week, Slate reported that HHS has already filed the paperwork to divert funds away from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program to cover some of these costs.
According to Slate, HHS was also planning to shift $79 million away from refugee resettlement programs that take care of English language instruction, social services, and medical assistance for refugees in the U.S., as well as from torture survivor programs. However, while these figures — which Slate reportedly obtained from the Office of Refugee Resettlement's internal budget documents — account for Trump's executive order ending family separations, they do not take into consideration the time limit a federal judge imposed on family reunification.
About a week after Trump signed his executive order, a federal judge in California not only ordered an end to most family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, but also ordered the Trump administration to reunite migrant children with their families within 30 days. The deadline was even tighter — at 14 days — for children under five years old.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar announced earlier this month that his department would meet the deadlines imposed by the California judge, though he nonetheless planned to request additional time in order "to ensure that we can do the job that we believe is necessary to protect the children in our care." As Politico noted in its report, family reunification is expensive, as is accelerating the process to meet these deadlines. Moreover, the HHS and the Department of Homeland Security were not prepared to reunite families when Trump signed his executive order, and have therefore had staff members working overtime — leading to even more money spent on the process.
In a rare moment of unity over immigration policy, Republicans and Democrats recently came together to support penalties for the HHS if it failed to be transparent in its family reunification efforts. In a budget session last week, the House Appropriations Committee proposed significant penalties on Azar's office if he was unable to explain exactly how his department plans to reunite up to 3,000 migrant children and their parents. During the meeting, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro — a ranking member of the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee — accused the Trump administration of "withholding information from the Congress" concerning the cost of family reunification.
According to Emily Holubowich, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Health Funding, the HHS should request emergency funding to handle family reunification, rather than shifting money away from its other accounts.
"We have a public health emergency like Ebola, Zika, hurricanes — except this one is man-made," Holubowich told Politico. "We should not be taking discretionary funding away from programs that need it."