Republicans won’t back President Barack Obama’s $3.7 billion request to deal with the surge of unaccompanied children arriving from Central America, allegedly because it costs too much. Instead, senior Republicans are discussing a bill that cuts that amount in half. But senators Tom Coburn and John McCain suggested an even cheaper solution last week: Send the 57,000 children back home on one-way plane flights.
“That’s $60,000 per child that we're going to spend, in emergency money,” Coburn said, having presumably divided $3.7 billion by the number of children. He claimed that the U.S. could just buy a plane ticket for each child—$350 each—for a sum total of $20 million. If the U.S. weren’t “incompetent,” he said, it could detain and deport each child for just three or four thousand dollars.
A plane ticket is not a solution—and Republicans should recognize that. If the U.S. is to handle the crisis humanely, then courts need more money, children should get legal representation, and the kids should have their basic needs met, like housing and medical screenings. Obama’s plan includes money for each of these.
For adults and some children, faster deportations are already happening. A plane carrying 38 mothers and their children landed in Honduras on Tuesday, marking the first of what will likely be thousands of expedited deportations. But unaccompanied kids (from countries other than Mexico and Canada) go through a different process, where they are given a court hearing to determine if they qualify for some kind of relief. Republicans hope to change this, too, so children from Central America are sent back immediately, without a chance to make their case for asylum.
Still, contra Coburn, no one is asking to spend $60,000 to deport a child. Obama’s proposal includes more than $1.6 billion for faster deportations and $433 million for strengthened border security, both of them Republican demands. A smaller, if more important amount—$64 million—will fund 40 judicial teams to help reduce the case backlog. Other parts of the supplemental aren’t meant for deporting children, but to ensure they have legal representation, and to deal with the root causes—murder and violence—for their leaving their countries. For instance, $300 million would go to the State Department for repatriating the migrants and for a media campaign in Central America to correct misconceptions about the immigration system.
But if Republicans want to shave costs, there’s room for it—in detention and enforcement. Releasing kids from custody to families and sponsors, and using monitoring like ankle bracelets, are much cheaper than detaining kids and families, activists say.
If you break out the real cost of deporting a child, it’s much lower than $60,000 a child. A 2010 Center for American Progress report found it cost $23,482 to apprehend, detain, and deport a person. But because today's unaccompanied migrants are turning themselves in, the actual cost is much lower. By not factoring in apprehension costs, Phil Wolgin, an immigration policy expert at the Center for American Progress, told me that the estimated cost per deportation is closer to $5,200 to $8,500. However, this is contingent on another part of Obama’s plan: Immigration courts need to be able to process cases in under 60 days. Right now, wait times are closer to 600 days.
Rebecca Leber is a staff writer for The New Republic.