When It Comes to Illegal Migrants, It’s Cheaper to Keep ‘Em

In ICE custody, that is, to spare states and localities hundreds of millions in costs

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 21, 2023

An April 20 report from RealClear Investigations (RCI) is headlined “Where Did All the Biden Illegal Immigrants Go? Hard-Up Sanctuary Cities Like New York Are Only Part of the Answer”. The report never answers the question of where the two million-plus Southwest border migrants released by the Biden administration have resettled, but it does reveal that those migrants are costing cities hundreds of millions in fiscal costs. When it comes to illegal migrants, it’s cheaper for ICE to keep them in custody — which is what the law mandates, anyway.

The Fiscal Costs. RCI broke down the official numbers released by three municipalities that are now seeking state and/or federal funding to deal with influxes of migrants released by DHS at the Southwest border into their jurisdictions: New York City, Denver, and Chicago.

According to the outlet, Denver is set to spend $17 to $20 million between last December and June to care for its 5,000 to 6,000 migrants, at a cost of somewhere between $800 to $1,000 per week for each migrant.

RCI reports that the state of Illinois rejected a request from Chicago for funding to offset the $120 million that city expects to spend on its “asylum seeker emergency response”, which the outlet calculates works out to about $33,000 per migrant in total.

NYC’s figure is more of a moving target, as RCI explains:

Using [Mayor Eric Adams’ (D)] own number of some 40,000 illegal immigrants that New York City has foot the bills for, it means taxpayers are spending roughly $150,000 per person to host new arrivals. In March, City Hall scaled back its count of the number of its immigrants to 12,700, which meant the taxpayers’ were spending nearly $5 million a day to take care of them, according to a New York Post analysis.

A total expenditure of $5 million per day for 12,700 migrants equals $393.70 per migrant per day, or just over $143,700 per year.

Congress’s Detention Mandate. As I have explained many times, section 235(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires DHS to detain every “applicant for admission” CBP deems inadmissible at the borders and the ports.

Pursuant to that provision, migrants apprehended crossing the border illegally are deemed “applicants for admission”, as are aliens who are found to be inadmissible at the ports of entry. Those aliens are not simply supposed to be detained while they are processed for removal — Congress also requires they be detained until they are either admitted to the United States, granted some sort of “relief” from removal (usually asylum), or removed from this country.

The Biden administration has released more than two million illegal Southwest migrants into the United States (the true total is higher, but can’t be determined due to a lack of transparency by the Biden administration, a complaint echoed by RCI).

Of those two million-plus Southwest border migrants, 277,383 are unaccompanied alien children who are nationals of “non-contiguous countries” (any country other than Canada or Mexico).

Under a poorly thought-out 2008 law — which was intended to curb alien trafficking but in many cases is actually abetting it — DHS must transfer such unaccompanied alien children to the Department of Health and Human Services for placement with “sponsors” in the United States.

Thus, those children are not covered by the detention mandate in section 235(b) of the INA, but that still leaves at least 1,740,262 illegal migrants who were encountered by CBP at the Southwest border and released by DHS into the United States in contravention of that law.

The state of Florida sued the Biden administration over its “non-detention policies” at the Southwest border, in a case captioned Florida v. U.S.

As U.S. district court Judge T. Kent Wetherell II recently explained in his opinion in that case, those Biden border releases are what’s driving the massive migrant surge that is drawing down municipal coffers in Denver, Chicago, NYC, and thousands of cities and towns across the United States:

Collectively, [the Biden administration’s migrant release policies] were akin to posting a flashing “Come In, We’re Open” sign on the southern border. The unprecedented “surge” of aliens that started arriving at the Southwest Border almost immediately after President Biden took office and that has continued unabated over the past two years was a predictable consequence of these actions.

You can legitimately blame “sanctuary” policies in those cities for the fact that they are destinations for released migrants (and a few in the RCI report do), but the “proximate cause” of their presence in the United States — that is, the “actual cause that is also legally sufficient to support liability” for them being here to begin with — is that the administration is flouting federal law and releasing them.

In other words, the federal government — not the states of Colorado, Illinois, or New York, let alone Denver, Chicago, or NYC — should be on the hook to provide for those migrants.

DHS Resources and the Costs of Detention. So why doesn’t DHS detain those Southwest border migrants, as the INA requires? The department blames Congress, asserting that the legislative branch has failed to give it adequate resources to hold those migrants.

Judge Wetherell conceded that was true but nonetheless found that a lack of resources did not let the administration off the hook for not detaining those migrants, explaining:

It is true that Congress is ultimately responsible for allocating the funds that are required to detain more aliens. However, DHS led Congress to believe that it did not need more detention capacity because it represented in its fiscal year 2022 and 2023 budget requests that “a reduction in detention capacity level will not impede ICE’s ability to apprehend, detain, and remove noncitizens that present a threat to national security, border security, and public safety.”

The fact that DHS continued to ask for less detention capacity and more money for “alternatives to detention” is another indication that the Non-Detention Policy challenged by Florida exists because it confirms Defendants’ prioritization of “alternatives to detention” over actual detention.

Thus, like a child who kills his parents and then seeks pity for being an orphan, it is hard to take Defendants’ claim that they had to release more aliens into the country because of limited detention capacity seriously.

That passage is crucial to understanding why detaining illegal border migrants in accordance with law is much cheaper than releasing them.

As the judge alludes to, the Biden administration has largely ditched real detention in favor of “alternatives to detention” or “ATD”, asserting that ATD is just as good as — and much more cost effective than — detaining those aliens.

DHS asserts on its “Alternatives to Detention” web page that: “The daily cost per ATD participant is less than $8 per day — a stark contrast from the cost of detention, which is around $150 per day”. (Emphasis added.)

That web page needs some updating, because in its most recent budget justification for FY 2024 (in which the administration again tries to cut detention funding), ICE asserts that the daily detention cost per bed per adult alien is $157.20, a $13.04 increase from FY 2022.

Thus, the cost of detaining any given border migrant in ICE custody is much cheaper on a daily basis than releasing them into NYC, where, again, the city is paying $393.70 per day to care for each.

ICE detention is also cheaper than releasing migrants into Chicago. According to DOJ statistics, the median completion time for a detained case in immigration court is currently 43 days, meaning that the median cost of detaining a migrant throughout the immigration-court process is $6,759.60 — about one-fifth what Chicago is paying to care for any individual migrant.

The same is true of Denver. Again, RCI expects that it will spend at least $800 per week for six months to care for each of its migrants, and assuming that there are 26 weeks in any six-month period, that equals $20,800 per migrant.

In other words, ICE detention would cost the federal government — the party to blame for those aliens being here to begin with — just about one-third of what Denver expects to pay. Simply put, the daily care costs in ICE detention may be slightly higher, but migrants stick around for fewer days in detention.

Moreover, when aliens are detained in ICE custody, DHS pays not only for their food, housing, and clothing, but also for their medical care. That latter cost can be a wild card in a non-detained setting, and the extra costs for treatment will be borne almost exclusively by local governments.

Of course, not all municipal costs are fiscal. Yale University reported in September that crowding in emergency departments (EDs) at hospitals across the nation is reaching “crisis levels”, and as NIH admitted in 2019, “undocumented residents” are “disproportionately dependent on” EDs “for care”. I seriously doubt Denver, Chicago, or NYC have included expenses to expand their EDs to accommodate their burgeoning migrant populations into their “asylum seeker” costs.

I’d be angry at the Biden administration if I were a local official. It might cost DHS less to release illegal migrants (it likely doesn’t), but those releases violate the law, encourage more migrants to enter, and shift the subsequent costs to care for those migrants from the federal government — which is to blame for them being here — to the states and cities. And states and cities are struggling mightily to keep up.