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Trump administration diverts nearly a half-billion dollars to migrant children in custody

The shelter used to house unaccompanied foreign children in Tornillo, Texas. (AP)

Federal health officials are reshuffling nearly a half-billion dollars this year to cover the expense of sheltering a record number of migrant children in the department’s custody, according to government documents and officials.

In a recent letter to several members of Congress, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the department is moving “up to $266 million” to house children from other countries who are on their own, diverting money originally intended for biomedical research, HIV/AIDS services and other health-care purposes.

HHS also has given its “unaccompanied alien children” program all $180 million available from a discretionary pot of public health money — a fund the Obama administration used to help implement the Affordable Care Act, a law that President Trump has sought to undermine.

These figures, for the fiscal year that ends this month, provide a first glimpse into how much the Trump administration has been spending on migrant children in government custody, who arrived unaccompanied by an adult or were separated from their parents at the border. Congressional Democrats have been asking for this information for months, and the administration still has not disclosed an overall amount.

The reshuffled sums fall within the HHS secretary’s authority to move money among the programs within the sprawling department, and even critics say it is not improper. Federal figures show that the department has transferred money into its programs for migrant children refugees four years since 2012.

But the shifting of $446 million to shelter immigrant youngsters this year is greater than the combined total during the past half-dozen years — and more than double the previous largest transfer, in 2017.

Notably, the spending has escalated even though the U.S. has not been seeing a spike in unaccompanied children arriving at the country’s southern border, as occurred in 2014 and 2016.

Still, the number of children in custody of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement is at an all-time high — now more than 13,300, according to department figures, more than triple the number when the administration began.

HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said that “zero tolerance,” the administration’s now-ended policy this spring that separated children from parents by Border Patrol agents, is “not driving the need” for additional beds for migrant children in government-contracted shelters. The policy, which Trump ended days before a judge ordered HHS to reunify the families, led to nearly 2,600 children being placed in shelters. Most by now have been returned to parents, though nearly 200 remain.

According to both HHS officials and the administration’s critics, the larger factor behind the increase has been longer stays in the migrant children’s shelters.

Azar, the HHS secretary, said this week that the growth reflects “the broken immigration system and the continued influx of unaccompanied minors. Speaking at a briefing for reporters, he said the transfers reflect one-quarter of one percent of the department’s funding and that certain priorities, such as efforts to lessen rampant opioid addiction, have been “walled off” from having money diverted.

Critics say the administration’s immigration policies are fueling the increase in children in the refu­gee office’s custody.

Migrant advocacy groups and Obama-era HHS officials warned months ago that the number would grow markedly because the administration was making it more difficult for potential sponsors of the children — usually a parent or other relative — to take them while their own immigration cases went through the court system.

In April, HHS and the Department of Homeland Security agreed to share more details about children taken into custody after arriving at the border. The agreement instituted a new requirement that any potential sponsor must provide fingerprints of themselves and any adult in the household to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency within DHS.

ICE officials have said that 80 percent of sponsor households have at least one undocumented adult in the household. Groups working with migrants cautioned that potential sponsors would be unlikely to provide ICE with information that could lead to deportation, slowing the process of finding homes for children in the shelters.

“The increased cost for the programs have been driven by the choices that the administration has made, both from family separation and by policy decisions to ramp up on immigration enforcement,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriation’s Committee’s subcommittee that deals with HHS spending.

As the caseload grows, the refu­gee office lacks enough beds in permanent shelter facilities with which it contracts across the country. In June, it opened a temporary 400-bed tent facility at a port of entry in Tornillo, Texas, just outside El Paso, along with another in Florida.

The Trump administration quietly expanded Tornillo’s capacity twice in August, first to 500 beds and then to 1,200. Earlier this month, HHS announced that Tornillo would be expanded to 3,800 beds and remain open at least through the end of the year. This week, HHS said in a notice in the Federal Register that it will pay up to $367.9 million between mid-September and Dec. 31 to the San Antonio-based nonprofit that operates Tornillo.

Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican whose district includes Tornillo, said the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent at the tent detention facility could be better spent addressing root causes of child migration from Central America and speeding up the processing of their immigration cases.

“Imagine if you had that money working on how you address violence and corruption in the Northern Triangle . . . rather than spending that money on a symptom of the broader problem,” Hurd said.

Robert Moore reported from El Paso.

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