Chuck Grassley

United States Senator from Iowa

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Grassley Presses for Answers on Housing for Unaccompanied Minors Crossing Southern Border

Jul 17, 2014

            WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley is asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services to explain and justify apparent outrageous spending on housing for the influx of undocumented migrants crossing the United States’ southern border.

            In a letter today to Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Grassley expressed concerns about news reports of a $50 million contract now apparently withdrawn to house some 600 undocumented border crossers and her statement at a briefing yesterday that it is costing the taxpayers between $250 and $1000 a day to house one of these border crossers.  He said that these actions raise serious questions about whether taxpayer dollars are being used in the most appropriate manner, especially in light of the multi-billion appropriations request by the Obama administration.  

“President Obama has repeatedly said that he needs $3.7 billion to deal with the situation
and influx of unaccompanied minors from our Southwestern Border, but despite this, HHS has not answered basic questions,” Grassley wrote.
 
            In addition to questions about the housing costs and the $50 million contract with non-profit BCFS, the letter outlines a series of questions that have previously gone unanswered by the administration including information about who the unaccompanied minors are being released to, the health issues facing the unaccompanied minors, and the decision to move millions of dollars away from service for legal refugees.

            Here’s a copy of the text of the letter.  

July 17, 2014

The Honorable Sylvia Mathews Burwell
Secretary
Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20201
            
Dear Secretary Burwell:

            On July 8, 2014, President Obama requested $3.7 billion to address the increase in unaccompanied minors and illegal immigration on the Southwest Border.[1]  As Congress considers this request, it is critical to ensure that these funds, if appropriated, would be spent wisely.  Recent news reports regarding the awarding of a $50 million contract to Texas-based non-profit BCFS, and your statement to Senators yesterday that housing a minor costs between $250 to $1,000 a day, raises serious questions about whether taxpayer dollars are being used wisely.[2]  

            On July 14, 2014, KRGV-TV reported that BCFS received a $50 million contract to turn the Palm Aire Hotel and Suites into a 600 bed “center for unaccompanied minors.”[3]  This facility would replace a 300 bed center BCFS that already operates in Harlingen, Texas.[4]  Currently, the Palm Aire, which refers to itself as “the Rio Grande Valley’s leading destination resort,” is open to hotel guests and boasts racquetball, an Olympic size pool, fitness center, steam room, sauna, and Jacuzzis.[5]  Given the potential size of BCFS’ contract, it appears that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is willing to pay at least $83,000 per bed.  However as BCFS is eliminating the 300 beds available in Harlingen, the true cost to the taxpayer may be over $166,000 per bed, or $13,889 per month per child.  

While media reports suggest that the contract has been withdrawn, there’s reason to question why your Department considered this in the first place.  The Department has entered into other contracts with BCFS, and its track record is already a cause for concern.  

According to BCFS’ 2012 Form 990, its CEO received close to $450,000 in salary and benefits.[6]  Charity Navigator, in its 2013 CEO Compensation Survey, found that the median salary for charities approximately the same size as BCFS was $285,753.[7]  In addition, BCFS appears to survive almost completely on taxpayer funding, receiving 95.9% of its 2012 budget from public support.[8]  

Despite being almost completely dependent on the public, BCFS has faced heavy criticism for attempting to avoid public scrutiny.  BCFS staff prohibited a Member of Congress from entering the taxpayer-funded detention center at Fort Sill; prevented a Los Angeles Times reporter from interviewing detainees, caseworkers, and other staff; physically pushed a local TV reporter from the entrance of a facility; and attempted to block the reporter’s camera crew from recording across the street from the facility.[9]  This aversion to basic transparency is extremely disturbing.

            Nearly a month ago, on June 25, 2014, my staff asked HHS to provide the following information:

1.    The names of the (HHS) contractors and any information about them – such as their location.

2.    What kinds of checks are done on relatives, parents and other guardians?  Specifically, what databases are checked and what other agencies help HHS with the checks?

3.    What statute, regulation or court order mentions that HHS must release minors into the custody of other non-relative guardians?

4.    Why doesn’t HHS report to (Department of Homeland Security) DHS about whom and where the (unaccompanied minors) UAMs are released to?

5.    Are there any examples of sponsor shopping and what you do with that information?  My staff followed up on this matter, asking about a recent report about a woman who has taken more than 800 kids into custody for people here illegally.

6.    Do you have a summary of the health issues facing the (UAM) population?  

a.    Are kids with contagious diseases treated by HHS?  
b.    Are they released even when contagious?
c.    What types of diseases are you seeing?  
d.    Is the Office of Refugee Resettlement coordinating with the Centers for Disease Control?

7.    A copy of the reprogramming request made to appropriators about moving $94 million from legal refugee services to the UAMs.

To date, my staff has not received responses to any of these questions.

President Obama has repeatedly said that he needs $3.7 billion to deal with the situation
and influx of unaccompanied minors from our Southwestern Border, but despite this, HHS has not answered basic questions about where this funding would go and why it is needed.  Please provide written answers to the seven questions above as well as these additional questions and requests for information:

1.    Explain in more detail why HHS is paying up to $1,000 per day for housing unaccompanied minors and families who have entered illegally.

2.    How many contracts has BCFS been awarded from 2010 to the present?  What is the total cost of these contracts?

3.    How many grants has BCFS been awarded from 2010 to the present?  What is the total cost of these grants?

4.    Please provide all communications and contract documents related to BCFS’ proposed contract and the Palm Aire Hotel and Suites facility, even if the contract is no longer under consideration.

Thank you for your cooperation and attention in this matter.  I would appreciate a response by July 31, 2014.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Chris Lucas or Kathy Nuebel at (202) 224-3744.

                                                            Sincerely,

                                                             
Charles E. Grassley                                                                
Ranking Member                                                                    
Committee on the Judiciary                                                            

[1] White House Fact Sheet, “Emergency Supplemental Request to Address the Increase in Child and Adult Migration from Central America in the Rio Grande Valley Areas of the Southwest Border”, available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/07/08/fact-sheet-emergen...
2 KRGV-TV, July 14, 2014, BCFS Reveals Plans for Palm Aire Hotel, available at: http://www.krgv.com/news/bcfs-reveals-plans-for-palm-aire-hotel/
3 Id.
4 Valley Morning Star, July 11, 2014, Border overload: More details emerge on Harlingen immigrant center, available at: http://www.valleymorningstar.com/premium/article_9066062a-0976-11e4-bad8...
5 Palm Aire Hotels & Suites, available at: http://www.palmairehotel.com/
6 BCFS Form 990, available at: http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2013/741/260/2013-741260710-0a0977...
7 Charity Navigator 2013 CEO Compensation Study, available at: http://www.charitynavigator.org/__asset__/studies/2013_CEO_Compensation_...
8 BCFS Form 990, available at: http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2013/741/260/2013-741260710-0a0977...
9 Washington Times, July 2, 2014, Rep. Jim Bridenstine denied access to child immigrant facility: ‘What are they trying to hide?’ available at:
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/2/rep-jim-bridenstine-denie...
Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2014, Hundreds of migrant youths held at Texas military base, available at: http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-texas-immigrant-youth-s...
KGBT-TV, July 14, 2014, Immigration Crisis: Where Do The Children Go?, available at: http://www.valleycentral.com/news/story.aspx?id=1070182#.U8bZlbH1vFR

 

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