Does detaining an immigrant for a year cost 4 times federal spending on a child in public school?

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., challenged the Department of Homeland Security’s spending practices, saying the agency is “unnecessarily detaining people,” such as pregnant women.

Murray offered a comparison of federal dollars that go toward the detention of immigrants with money spent to educate children in public schools.

“As you know, detention is really expensive,” Murray said during a May 8 Senate subcommittee hearing for the department’s 2019 budget request. “Each year (U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement) detains someone, it costs taxpayers over $50,000. For comparison, by the way, that’s four times the amount the federal government spends on each child in our public schools.”

We found that Murray’s math contains some truth, but needs clarification and additional information.

Based on the current rate to house an adult detainee per day, it would cost slightly over $50,000 to keep a person detained for a year. That’s roughly four times the approximate $13,000 public schools received per student.

However, a year’s detention is not realistic, as most detainees are held an average of 40 days. Also, most school funding is at the state and local levels, not federal.

Immigrant detention costs

Murray’s office said her $50,000 estimate was an annualized calculation of the current daily bed rate for immigrant detention, $137.19, multiplied by 365 days (a total of $50,074.35).

The bed rate is the national average cost to house one adult detainee for one day. In recent years, the average bed rate has been around $130.

That $50,000 is likely a conservative estimate of the detention costs. From fiscal years 2014 through 2017, ICE underestimated the actual bed rate, said an April 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, flagging “inconsistencies and errors” in ICE’s calculations for immigration detention costs. Since ICE had not received an appropriation for fiscal year 2018 during the time of GAO’s review, GAO did not assess 2018’s budget projection compared to actual costs. Still, GAO said ICE’s 2018 request included a multiplication error that resulted in ICE requesting less funds for adult beds.

It would cost more than $50,000 to keep one immigrant in detention for a year based on the current bed rate. But so far in fiscal year 2018, the average length of detention has been 40.5 days, according to ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett. The average length of detention from fiscal years 2014 through 2016 was about 33 days, according to the ICE budget overview for fiscal year 2018.

The average length of detention for immigrants apprehended at the southwest border was about 27.4 days in fiscal year 2017, and increased to 51.5 days for immigrants apprehended in the interior of the country, the budget overview said. It also said that “due to a revived focus on ensuring public safety by increasing interior enforcement” detention of criminal immigrants “may be significantly higher when compared to prior years.”

Even so, there are reports of some immigrants being in detention for several months and even years.

The U.S. Supreme Court in February said that individuals in immigration detention are not entitled to periodic bond hearings, even if they have been detained for months or years. The case centered on immigrants in the United States legally whom the government seeks to deport after being convicted of crimes, asylum seekers, and immigrants seeking admission on other grounds.

Public school funds

Murray’s office used data from the National Center for Education Statistics for her point about the cost of public school education. The center’s website said “total expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools in the United States in 2013–14 amounted to $634 billion, or $12,509 per public school student enrolled in the fall (in constant 2015–16 dollars).”

Multiplied by four, the total slightly overtakes the $50,000 estimate for detaining on immigrant for a year. However, the per-student estimate includes all levels of funding, not just federal.

“The word federal was inadvertently included, and will be corrected in the committee record so there is no confusion going forward,” said Murray’s spokeswoman Kerry Arndt.

Officials at the National Center for Education Statistics provided us updated data for 2014-15 that showed total expenditures per-student were $13,100 (or about $2,400 more than the immigrant detention estimate when multiplied by four.)

The federal government contributes billions to educating U.S. students. But the bulk of costs are picked up by state and local sources. Schools use federal funds for specific school programs and students, such as school lunches and support for children with disabilities.

Public schools received $56 billion from the federal government for the 2014-15 school year, said Tom Snyder, director of annual reports and information staff at the National Center for Education Statistics. Broken down to the number of students in public schools that school year (about 50 million), schools received $1,122 per student (adjusted to 2016-17 dollars), Snyder said.

Our ruling

Murray said, “Each year ICE detains someone, it costs taxpayers over $50,000. For comparison, by the way, that’s four times the amount the federal government spends on each child in our public schools.”

The current bed rate to house one adult detainee multiplied by 365 days is $50,074.35.

The most recent per-student expenditure total multipled by four comes to $52,400.

The numbers alone don’t capture the full story. It’s important to note that not all immigrants spend a year in detention. Also, schools’ major sources of funding are local and state governments, not the federal government.

Murray’s statement is partially accurate and needs additional information. We rate it Half True.

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