The Trump administration's recent immigration crackdown has clearly been a boon for the private companies that own, manage and supply federal detention centers.
But less clear is whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth to support a detention policy that many Americans find abhorrent.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security had ended up spending more than originally budgeted to house detainees.
"ICE consistently underestimated the actual bed rate due to inaccuracies in [its] model," the report said. "ICE's methods for estimating detention costs do not [result in] a reliable cost estimate."
In response to the GAO report in April, ICE officials said they had recently improved the process of estimating costs for the 2020 budget cycle, and they promised to "work to more effectively" to document the agency's cost reviews. ICE also agreed to make several changes in its reporting and methodology recommended by the GAO.
When asked for comment, ICE in an emailed statement noted that the GAO acknowledged that "predicting detainee population is a complex challenge." ICE said it is "developing corrective action plans to document and implement review processes" and "will leverage GAO cost estimating best practices to ensure comprehensive, accurate and credible estimates."
The report from the GAO followed a separate report in February by the DHS Office of Inspector General that took issue with the procedure ICE officials used in 2014 to set up a 2,400-bed family detention center in Dilley, Texas. Instead of negotiating directly with CCA, the contractor operating the new facility, ICE modified an existing agreement to house detainees with Eloy, Arizona, which "created an unnecessary 'middleman'" that "added $438,000 in annual fees for the service," according to the DHS inspector general report.
In response, ICE officials agreed to make changes in their procedures in the future. But the agency was "unresponsive" and "non-concurred" with a second recommendation that it discontinue using the Eloy agreement to establish detention space in Dilley, more than 900 miles from Eloy, the OIG's report said.
Cost overruns for detention facilities have plagued the government for years. More than a decade ago, the Justice Department's inspector general found that state and local governments had been overpaid by tens of millions of dollars for the cost of housing federal detainees. The finding was based on a series of 31 audits dating back as far as 1995.
"These audits often concluded that the (federal government) had paid state and local governments significantly more than the actual and allowable costs for this space," the report said.
The cost of detaining immigrants is likely to continue to increase. Despite the administration's apparent reversal this week of its practice of separating immigrant children from their parents, there's been no easing of President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy toward those who enter the country without authorization.