child care centers
Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Getty Images

The Trump administration is holding a record number of migrant children in federal detention centers — a more than fivefold increase from last year.

 

The number of migrant children in federal custody has soared from 2,400 in May 2017 to 12,800 this month, according to data provided to Congress and reported by the New York Times yesterday.

 

At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services has diverted $169 million from other programs to fund immigrant detention, NBC News reported Wednesday.

 

The news comes even though courts have ruled that separated migrant children must be reunited with their families, striking down the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy of separating migrant parents and children at the Southern border and holding them in separate detention facilities. Since then, hundreds of children have been returned to their parents.

 

The huge increase isn't due to more children entering the country. Instead, fewer minors are being released to live with families and other sponsors, according to data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services.

 

Most of the children are teenagers who crossed the border alone and are being held in more than 100 shelters across the country, most near the Southwestern border, the Times reports.

The surge is straining the migrant shelter system, which is over 90 percent capacity. It won't be able to handle any sudden surge of border crossings, experts say. "The closer they get to 100 percent, the less ability they will have to address anything unforeseen,” said Mark Greenberg, who oversaw the care of migrant children for the Health and Human Services Department under President Barack Obama. “Even if there’s not a sudden influx, they will be running out of capacity soon unless something changes.”

The federal government said it plans to triple the size of a "tent city" for migrant children in Amarillo, Texas, to 3,800 beds.

How much do detention centers cost?

According to ICE's 2018 budget, it costs $750 a night to house a child in a "tent city," more than five times the cost of a child bed in a detention center, which costs $139 per night. (Adult beds cost $133 each per night.) But immigration groups contend the cost is actually higher. "ICE estimates often lack in transparency and don't reflect the true cost," reported CNBC in June. "There's been so much discrepancy that the U.S. Government Accountability Office looked into ICE's budget requests and found that its methodology was inaccurate and recommended a change in the way it comes up with its cost estimates."