Utah Rep. Burgess Owens says caring for migrant children will cost taxpayers $3 trillion, but will it?

Rep. Burgess Owens R-Utah, talks during an interview at
his West Jordan offices on Monday, April 12, 2021.

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah congressman who recently returned from a trip to the U.S. border with Mexico says it's going to cost the government $3 trillion to take care of unaccompanied children streaming into the country illegally.

But an estimate based on government data puts the cost significantly lower than the figure Republican Rep. Burgess Owens stated in a Deseret News interview Monday.

"One of the things I need to point out, it's going to cost taxpayers $3 trillion — $3 trillion with a T — to take in, house, facilitate and move these kids throughout our country," he said. "Right now we have 19,000. I think they're looking at next month up to 35,000 unaccompanied children."

Asked where the $3 trillion number came from, Owens said he was told that at the border but couldn't recall the source.

"Let me see if I can remember. ... I think that's probably something you can find out, that's something you could easily find out," he said.

"This is a national issue that reporters across the country should be digging into it," Owens added. "If you haven't heard of $3 trillion, I'm going to ask you why not."

A Washington Post analysis of government data last week found that the Biden administration appears to be spending at least $60 million per week to care for the more than 16,000 migrant teenagers and children in shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Calculating that cost for a year at that number of children — acknowledging that the costs are expected to rise with more children coming in the next few months — it comes to more than $3 billion.

At about $775 per day, the daily cost per child is more than twice that of the Department of Health and Human Services' already established shelter program cost of around $290 per day.

Teens and children are spending an average of 31 days in HHS custody before they are released to a vetted family member already in the United States or to an eligible sponsor, according to the most recent HHS data, so the government is spending about $24,000 for each minor held at the temporary facilities, according to the Post.

The Biden administration has set up at least 10 large emergency facilities, creating 16,000 temporary beds for migrant children in convention centers, converted oil worker camps and on military bases, the Post reported. About 8,500 children are living at these pop-up sites, and 4,000 more are waiting to be transferred from cramped border facilities.

Reporters have repeatedly asked the Biden administration for cost data associated with the emergency shelters, aside from the $775 figure. Officials have not provided a breakdown by location or indicated whether there are financial savings associated with the use of military bases, for instance, in comparison with other sites, according to the Post.

Biden officials say they don't intend to ask Congress for supplemental funding to cover the costs of the emergency sites.

Even as the government projects that by September about 22,000 to 26,000 unaccompanied minors will arrive each month and require Health and Human Services care, the cost wouldn't approach $3 trillion as Owens suggests.

Owens made another assertion during his trip to McAllen, Texas, last week with fellow Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee that some have questioned.

"We are seeing every single day, people coming here and within hours getting on a train or a plane and going to your neighborhood. So, no Americans, this isn't a border issue anymore. They are coming to your neighborhoods, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, and there is a cartel influence along the way. So be aware, don't think this is a distance from you now, this is coming your way and it is done on purpose by a party who could care less about we the people," he said on Newsmax.

Asked Monday to elaborate on that comment and provide evidence of that happening, Owens said, "Don't take it from me. These are things you can find out. I would suggest that you go down to the border and ask some of these border patrol people."


Every city becomes a border city when people are taken to the interior within hours of arriving in the country, he said.

"For instance, here in Utah we'll wake up one day and find out there's been 2, 3, 4,000 people dropped to our city that we have to figure out what to do with. That's what's happened by the way. Cities are waking up to find out that this federal government is dropping people off saying, 'OK. Go for it. Find a way to help these people out,'" Owens said.

"It's not fair to the city. It's not fair to those of us paying taxes here. It's not fair to those who want to make sure our kids have the very best education without being inundated, being diluted."

Salt Lake City already has lots of social service needs without more people coming to the state, Owens said.

"Our social services should not be inundated with new people, just dropped on us because the federal government feels it's the best thing to do," he said.

Aden Batar, the director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services of Utah, said that is not happening in the state.

"We're not seeing that. We need to make sure our community understands that we have a system that would not allow that to happen. I've been working in this program over 25 years and I have not seen that," he said.

The Biden administration allows only children who cross the border illegally to remain in the country, while adults are sent back to Mexico. Batar said if officials can't reunite the child with family or find a sponsor's family members, children are released to a foster care program such as Catholic Community Services.

But, he said, children aren't being dropped off in neighborhoods. Foster families must be arranged before Catholic Community Services accepts a child from federal authorities, he said.

"Without placement, they don't just take them and drop off in any community. Where will the kids go if they're dropped off in any community? That is not who we are," Batar said.

Batar said he wants people to see the facts so they know what is going on.

"We don't want to create a fear in our community," he said.

Owens' office pointed to news reports of migrants being moved around the country.

U.S. Border Patrol started flying migrant families from Texas to San Diego for processing due to the surge of asylum seekers on the southwest border. San Diego was chosen in 2019 for a similar three-month-long program because it has existing facilities, capacity and experience in processing families.

After testing negative for COVID-19 and other processing in Texas, the Department of Homeland Security gave migrants legal documents and released them to a local nongovernmental organization. The NGO then arranged to bus them to Florida and New Jersey, according to a Center for Immigration Studies report.

The Intercept reported that the Border Patrol was dropping off migrant families, mostly mothers with young children, in the rural Arizona town of Ajo. Community members put together a system to test families for COVID-19 and then transported them 130 miles east to Tucson, where the Border Patrol has historically taken people apprehended in the desert.

In the interview, Owens had several ideas for dealing with the surge at the border.

He suggested sending judges to the border to adjudicate asylum cases rather than releasing people. He also said the border wall needs to be finished so there is only one point of entry. Owens said he also favors the Trump-era policy requiring asylum-seekers to wait in the first safe country in which they arrive while waiting for their case to be processed.

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Dennis Romboy
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.


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