The crisis at America’s southern border has been a public fixation for years now. As the humanitarian crisis in Latin America continues to prompt a flow of refugees through Mexico — simultaneous to a marked shift in immigration policy coming from the current administration — many Americans have been forced to do some serious soul searching about what the right approach might be. Making the issue all the murkier is that it’s tied up in a number of contentious issues in domestic politics that tend to color people’s perspectives on the matter.
However, while there’s unlikely going to be much consensus on what the best potential policy would be, one way to help put all the options into perspective is by considering their financial costs to the U.S. taxpayer. It doesn’t strike at some of the deeper questions underlying the issue, to be sure, but a clear sense of the monetary consequences to each policy or potential policy can help bring some clarity to an issue that’s often hard to get a handle on.
So, here’s a closer look at the border crisis, what’s causing it and how much it costs the American taxpayer.
Last updated: Feb. 4, 2020
The Causes of the Border Crisis
There has always been a stream of people interested in coming to the United States from Latin America and willing to circumvent the normal, legal process for doing so. However, in recent years, the severe violence in countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador has seen a spike among those seeking safety by claiming asylum in the United States.
The need to leave their homes to seek a life elsewhere can be put in perspective by the shocking levels of violence in their home countries, driven by drug smuggling and warring street gangs. Honduras and El Salvador have two of the five highest per capita murder rates in the world, coming in at 42 and 62 homicides per 100,000 people, respectively, as of 2017. When you consider that same rate in the United States — a rate that compares unfavorably to most of the developed world — is just five, it’s clear that the levels of violence that exist south of the border are endemic.
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Cost Since the Creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
Any efforts to understand the cost of a particular government action can easily get lost in the weeds as the minutiae of various programs often become difficult to understand. As such, one good starting point is to consider the total cost of immigration enforcement actions since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
That comes to some $330 billion for 2003-2019, or about $20.5 billion annually over a 16-year period. This represents a tiny fraction of the total federal budget — which was around $2 trillion in 2003 and has since risen to over $4 trillion.
Cost of Illegal Immigration
Any costs associated with border policy should clearly be filtered through the consideration of the potential costs of illegal immigration. This is, though, an extremely contentious issue about which there’s no clear consensus. Many conservative groups are likely to point to the increased cost of public services created by undocumented immigrants. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, pegged the cost of government services given to undocumented immigrants at $54 billion a year.
However, critics will point out that the majority of those costs come in the form of public schooling, something that more than pays for itself over time. Not only do undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.6 billion in taxes a year, but studies have shown that the cost of those public services is more than repaid in future generations. Second-generation immigrants are consistently among the hardest working members of society, producing considerable tax revenue. A 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that — while undocumented immigrants cost the government about $1,600 a year — second-generation immigrants produced gains of $1,700 a year, compared to just $1,300 for native-born citizens.
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Cost To Detain Migrants
Of course, the broader cost/benefits of immigration on the southern border are one thing, but the current crisis has involved a number of new costs in working to address the influx of people seeking asylum in the United States. In particular, precisely how to house and care for those people who have made the long trek from Mexico in search of a better life.
Changes in Policy
Two major changes in American immigration policy have had a big impact on how the current crisis has unfolded. The first is the “Remain in Mexico” policy that calls for migrants awaiting a chance to be processed as asylum seekers in the United States to stay on the southern side of the border, a policy that has helped restrict the flow of people over the border but has drawn criticism for the conditions of migrant camps in Mexico.
The second is the abortive attempt to end the so-called “catch and release” approach to asylum seekers. This allowed people seeking asylum in the United States entry into the country while they awaited their court dates. The administration has claimed that many of these asylum seekers take advantage of the policy by entering the United States and never returning when their court date comes up. In turn, the administration has opted to detain most of them at the border.
That’s been the source of some of the greatest controversy as stories abound about the deplorable conditions in which many of these people have been kept, not to mention concerns over the earlier attempts to institute a policy of separating families in these instances.
Cost for Detaining Asylum Seekers
Detaining asylum seekers in the United States can be costly. The 2018 budget for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) puts the cost at $133.99 per day to detain one adult, though many groups critical of the policy estimate it at over $200. In total, the 2018 budget year saw DHS spend just over $3 billion — or around $8.5 million a day — to detain migrants at the border rather than releasing them into the United States pending a court date.
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Cost for Separating Children
The extremely controversial practice of separating children from their families is one that appears to greatly increase the cost of the program. According to DHS, the cost of keeping a child in a separate facility like one of the “tent cities” constructed to handle the increased flow of migrants to the border is $775 a night, compared to under $300 for keeping those children with their families in either permanent or temporary facilities.
The policy’s defenders would likely point out, though, that it was always intended as a deterrent to convince potential migrants still in Central America not to undertake the long and dangerous journey through Mexico to the American border. The controversial policy was officially ended in June of 2018, though critics have claimed that it’s still going on.
Is There a Need To Detain Asylum Seekers?
Critics of the Trump administration would also point out that, regardless of the actual costs involved, detaining asylum seekers at the border is unnecessary. A recent study from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) found that some 99% of those asylum seekers who were not detained or who were released from custody ultimately returned for their court hearing, indicating that the need for detention facilities like the ones currently in operation is minimal.
Emergency Funding Appropriated by Congress in 2019
In May of last year, the Trump administration had to go to Congress to get additional, emergency funding approved to maintain the temporary detention facilities it has set up. The $4.5 billion approved is covering the tremendous costs of feeding and caring for the approximately 23,000 unaccompanied children currently being held in facilities in the Southwest.
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Cost of a Border Wall
Of course, any discussion of the border crisis would be incomplete without at least mentioning the preferred remedy for President Trump and many Republicans: a border wall. Thus far, the idea of a sea-to-sea concrete wall seems to have been largely scrapped due to a lack of available funding, but the Trump administration has used emergency powers to redirect funding from elsewhere to fund the construction of sections of barriers in strategic places.
Thus far, a total of $11 billion has been appropriated by the White House, putting the current costs at $19.4 million per mile of wall constructed. That’s largely in line with cost estimates from the Office of Management and Budget in a letter to Congress in which the president asked for $5.7 billion to construct fencing over 234 miles of border — which works out to about $24.4 million per mile.
However, that would put the price tag for the entire barrier at nearly $60 billion, per the Cato Institute.
Ultimate “Costs” Are About More Than Money
Of course, if this issue were one defined by dollars and cents alone, it likely wouldn’t be the source of such controversy. For major critics and supporters of the recent policy changes alike, their view of the policy is most likely shaped more by their consideration of the moral question than the potential price tag attached to different policies.
Critics would probably point to conditions for migrants and asylum seekers at the border as being inhumane and unsustainable, regardless of their cost.
But those people who support the administration are likely motivated more by concerns about basic rule of law surrounding the immigration system, making the price tag for detention centers — or even a wall — a fair price to pay.
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