Trump Administration Must Explain Why U.S. Taxpayers Are Paying 'Outrageous' 'Trump Hotel' Prices to Keep Empty Migrant Detention Center Running: Congressman

The Trump administration is being accused of wasting American taxpayers' money after a congressional hearing on Wednesday revealed that it may have spent as much as $33 million to keep a massive migrant child detention center in Florida open for 46 days—despite the fact that no kids were being housed there.

The detention facility in Homestead, Florida, is run by the only private company operating migrant child detention centers in the U.S. and has been temporarily shut down since August 3, when the last of the children at the facility were abruptly relocated as part of a hurricane preparation plan.

Despite sitting empty for more than a month, however, the facility has still been costing taxpayers as much as $720,000 a day, it was suggested during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

The information came to light during an exchange between Democratic Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Jonathan Hayes, the acting director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that oversees the care of migrant children in federal custody.

Grilled by Pocan on just how much the U.S. was paying to keep the center "empty," Hayes revealed that the government was spending what amounted to $600 a day for each of the 1,200 beds at the facility—just $150 less than the $750 per bed the U.S. was paying when the center was in use.

Asked to clarify that all this American taxpayer money was being spent on "1,200 imaginary people," Hayes acknowledged that the cost was "expensive." However, he said he had been informed by his "planning and logistics team" that if the facility were to temporarily remove its staff, it could take "a minimum of 90 to 120 days in order to reactivate the staff back."

And, he said, "given the extreme uncertainty of referrals coming across our nation's southern border, and how many kids we might have to care for, that wasn't a switch that was turned off at this point."

In an interview with Newsweek on Thursday, Pocan said he was left unconvinced by Hayes' explanation, considering that the $600 cost per bed could easily be enough to cover the cost of a "night in the Four Seasons or a Trump hotel."

"It's a shocking amount of money to be paying for an empty facility," he said. "To house no one for $600 doesn't seem like a very good negotiation. Clearly, that's a figure that the average American would find outrageous, and the fact that we're doing it for 1,200 empty beds is even more outrageous."

In a statement sent to Newsweek on Friday, following Pocan's comments, a spokesperson for the HHS Administration for Children and Families office denied that the costs were that high.

"While the current average daily cost to care for a child at an Influx facility is approximately between $600 and $775 based on our experience at the Homestead Temporary Influx shelter, this cost estimate is reduced considerably as no children are receiving care there and staffing has been reduced at the facility," the spokesperson said. "It does not cost $720,000/day at Homestead because the facility is empty of children."

Asked how much it does cost then, to keep the empty facility running, the spokesperson did not immediately respond.

Homestead, they said, would "continue to operate on a reduced basis due to the unpredictability of referrals from the border."

Noting that the ORR currently has 5,700 unaccompanied minors in its care, down significantly from December's numbers, which saw 14,775 unaccompanied children detained, the spokesperson said the number of children being detained at the border could rise in the autumn months, based on historical trends.

"Maintaining staff and facilities at Homestead is critical to ensuring ORR will be adequately prepared to accept children from CBP should we face another influx crisis in the coming months," they said.

With the ACF spokesperson asserting that the cost of keeping Homestead running may be lower than what Hayes initially suggested, it is still unclear how much the empty facility is costing U.S. taxpayers.

If that number is as high as Hayes suggested, Pocan said, taxpayers deserve a deeper explanation of why the Trump administration is funding an empty facility run by a for-profit company.

Unlike other migrant child detention centers in the U.S., the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children is run by a for-profit operator, Comprehensive Health Services. That company is owned by Caliburn International, which in turn is owned by private equity firm D.C. Capital Partners.

Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly sat on the board of D.C. Capital Partners before joining the administration in November 2017—and later joined Caliburn's board of directors after departing the White House in 2018.

The House Oversight Committee announced in July that it would be probing the potential conflict of interest.

"Where I'm from, we refer to this as not passing the smell test," Pocan said. "It seems like there's very little oversight happening on the Trump administration's part."

"Unfortunately," the U.S. representative said, "I'm not surprised... We still have a lot more questions than answers."

Caliburn has not sought to hide the fact that is has made money off the detention of migrant children. The firm described in a November 2018 Securities and Exchange Commission filing how its "growth opportunities are well-aligned with U.S. federal government priorities."

One "area of increasing focus is border enforcement and immigration policy, which is driving significant growth with the DHS, U.S. Customs and Border Protection ('CBP'), Transportation Security Administration ('TSA'), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ('ICE'), and HHS," the company said.

Now, however, at least as far as the Homestead detention facility is concerned, the future of that growth appears uncertain.

In his testimony, Hayes said the Office of Refugee Resettlement had decreased the facility's capacity from 2,700 beds down to just the 1,200 that currently remain, meaning "a lot of the staff were let go."

Meanwhile, the number of migrants arriving at the border has steadily decreased, with U.S. Border Patrol apprehending just 3,729 unaccompanied children in August, representing a significant decline from the 11,475 it stopped in May.

So, if the Homestead facility were to reopen in the near future, it is unclear how many children it might be used to detain.

Immigration advocates and politicians have called for the facility, and others like it, to be shut down completely, with 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren also joining calls for the Homestead center to be closed.

During a previous visit to the shelter, Warren said she would continue to speak out "until the facility releases these children and closes down."

"When we see something that is wrong, we are called on not to stand by, not to be quiet, not to look the other way, but to come and to witness and to speak out," she said. "What is happening in Homestead to children is happening as a direct result of activities of the United States government. It is wrong. It is a stain on our country. And we must speak out. We speak out as a people. We speak out as moral citizens, not just of the United States, but of the world."

A spokesperson for Caliburn declined to speak on the record for this article.

This article has been updated with a statement from the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as to reflect that a spokesperson for Caliburn declined to speak on the record for this article.

Homestead
Protesters are seen in front of the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied migrant children after three congresswomen were denied entry on April 8 in Homestead, Florida. Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell were denied entry by the Department of Health and Human Services, despite a new law mandating congressional access to the facility. Joe Raedle/Getty
Trump Administration Must Explain Why U.S. Taxpayers Are Paying 'Outrageous' 'Trump Hotel' Prices to Keep Empty Migrant Detention Center Running: Congressman | U.S.