Separating Immigrant Families Is Costing Millions More Than Keeping Them Together

June 20, 2018, 3:02 PM UTC

The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which has lead to the separation of families and the detention of more than 2,000 children, has been widely criticized as cruel and immoral by both sides of the aisle, but new reports are showing the policy is more than just inhuman—it’s uneconomical too.

The cost of holding migrant children in the newly constructed “tent cities” is $775 per person per night, according to an official from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Alternatively, if children were kept with their parents in permanent facilities run by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, detention would cost $298 per person per night, according to agency estimates made in 2014.

The high cost is reportedly for the sudden need to supply security, medical workers, and air conditioning in the new facilities. At these rates, the estimated cost to maintain a 400-bed facility at full capacity for one month is more than $5 million. Migrant children separated from parents are typically housed for almost two months before being placed to live with a relative or foster parents. Before the “zero-tolerance” policy announced in April, families found crossing the border illegally were held together in ICE detention facilities for a maximum of 20 days before being released with ankle trackers to await their court date.

With the recent surge in children separated from family, the HHS is “aggressively looking for potential sites” for new tent cities, says one official. These potential sites include and Air Force Base in Little Rock, Arkansas and farmland in Arizona formally run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Aside from these government facilities, children will be hosted by Southwest Key Programs Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides temporary housing for migrant families. The organization owns about a dozen facilities in Texas—including the infamous site constructed from a retired Walmart store—and their usage comes with a hefty price tag. Southwest Key Programs Inc. will be paid more than $458 million in fiscal year 2018, more than any other organization, government agency, or company running a detention center for children in HHS care.

The nonprofit’s CEO, Juan Sanchez, is gaining monumentally from this deal. His compensation has increased drastically over the past eight years, raising from $269,000 in 2010 to $1.5 million in 2016. The government has been associated with Southwest Key Programs for the past couple years, paying the organization about $286 million in 2017 and $211 million in 2016.

Founded in 1987, Southwest Key Programs aims to provide housing and education for youth and families. “The inspiring kids and families we work with are seeking the American dream—equality, education, and a healthier quality of life,” says their website. “At Southwest Key, we simply open the doors to opportunity so they can achieve these dreams.”

According to ACF data, the Trump administration expects to spend $943 million in grants this year to detain and care for the immigrant children, and this number may rise as more children are detained. The government spent $958 million in the entirety of fiscal year 2017.