Homeland Security officials regularly bungle their estimates for detention beds needed to hold immigrants awaiting deportation, getting both the bed-number and the cost wrong in requests to Congress, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report Wednesday.
The findings could undercut President Trump’s request for a massive increase in detention beds for 2019, with lawmakers on Capitol Hill already skeptical of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking for 52,000 beds.
GAO investigators said ICE double-counts some costs, its estimates are only “minimally” credible, and political appointees have been known come in late in the process and unilaterally alter the numbers, further hindering their reliability.
“By not sufficiently meeting the best practices in all of the characteristics, the cost estimate for the immigration detention cannot be considered reliable,” the GAO said.
Indeed, ICE guessed wrong on its per-bed cost estimates every year from 2014 to 2017, coming well below actual costs.
Detention beds, along with Mr. Trump’s border wall, are the two most controversial parts of the immigration budget. Those who want to see a reduction in illegal immigration say detention beds are critical because if migrants can be held while awaiting an outcome to their case, they are less likely to get away and disappear into the shadows. That will change the incentive structure, and only those with valid cases for asylum will brave the wait, security experts say.
DOCUMENT: GAO report on illegal immigrant detention
But immigrant-rights advocates oppose detention in most cases, calling it cruel punishment akin to prison. They’ve pushed to cut the number of people detained and to relax conditions for those who end up being held.
For now, the two sides have come to a sort of standoff. In the most recent spending bill, Congress approved money for an average of about 40,500 detention beds throughout the year. Mr. Trump had requested more than 51,000.
The GAO tried to evaluate that 2018 request but said the documentation ICE provided didn’t back up those numbers.
GAO investigators acknowledged predicting detention needs is fraught with complications, including changing immigration patterns, which can change the number of people needed to be held, and changing contracts with detention facilities, which can alter the supply of beds that could be used.
ICE, in a statement, said it appreciated GAO acknowledging the hurdles.
The agency said it’s come up with a new model it’s started using recently to predict detention needs, and the tool “has proven to be highly accurate at forecasting detention needs considering all of these various factors.”
“ICE concurs with the GAO’s recommendations and is developing corrective action plans to document and implement review processes, evaluate day bed methodology, determine the most appropriate way to project average daily population (ADP) for use in the congressional budget justification, ensure that the appropriate inflation rates are used and remove family residential center beds from adult detention center bed calculations,” the agency said.
The GAO said each detention bed will cost nearly $134 a day this year. Of that cost, nearly $100 is for the actual space and personnel, another $17 is for health care, and the rest is for administration and overhead.
That cost estimate is $21 more per bed than the government paid in 2011.