Chuck Grassley

United States Senator from Iowa





Stewardship of Taxpayer Dollars in Question during Unaccompanied Minors Influx

Oct 30, 2014

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley said today that a contract signed by the federal government during the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the United States’ southern border raises more questions about the Obama administration’s stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

In a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell, Grassley wrote, “In your testimony, just months after this grant was approved, you claimed that a large infusion of taxpayer dollars was necessary because, ‘…we don’t have enough beds and we don’t have sufficient resources to continue to add beds.’  It’s disturbing that HHS is funding such expensive facilities despite claiming to be unable to meet basic needs for UACs (Unaccompanied Alien Children).”

The contract between the federal government and Southwest Key Programs provided for a facility with an organic garden, a small petting farm and guitar lessons for the minors.
Grassley also said he was concerned that documents provided to his office showed no attempt to negotiate the contract.

Grassley began asking the Obama administration to explain and justify apparent outrageous spending on housing for the high numbers of undocumented migrants crossing the southern border.  In a July 17, 2014, letter to Burwell, Grassley expressed concerns about news reports of a $50 million contract now apparently withdrawn to house some 600 undocumented border crossers and her statement at a member-level briefing that it is costing the taxpayers between $250 and $1000 a day to house one individual.  Grassley reiterated his questions in an August 22, 2014, letter before the department responded on August 26, 2014.

In addition, on October 10, 2014, Grassley, along with Senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Coburn, asked the Government Accountability Office to review HHS policies in caring for unaccompanied minors, including the ability of the department to accommodate this year’s influx and how the office has prepared to deal with another surge which the administration suggests could include up to 145,000 more unaccompanied minors.

Here’s the text of today’s letter to Burwell.  A signed copy can be found here.

October 29, 2014

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

On July 14, 2014, you testified in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of a supplemental appropriations request to fund the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) efforts to house unaccompanied alien children (UAC) and families.[1]  You claimed that because of an influx of UACs “…our resources have been stretched thin” and that as a result, more taxpayer dollars were needed to finance the care and custody of individuals who surged across the border in recent months.[2]
On August 22, 2014, I wrote to your Department regarding concerns related to a Texas-based non-profit; Southwest Key Programs.[3]  Southwest Key has been the recipient of $368 million in government grants in the past six years and over $122 million alone from the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement in 2014.[4]  

The documents provided in response to my letter raise serious concerns regarding the Department  and Southwest Key’s stewardship of taxpayer dollars.  For example, on April 23, 2014, Southwest Key proposed to charge the government a “daily rate” of $316 to house unaccompanied alien children in a facility in El Cajon, California.  There is no further detail as to whether this request was accepted.  However, according to documents, HHS did approve a grant for Southwest Key to fund the El Cajon facility.  According to the grant documents, Southwest Key also told your department that the facility contained the following amenities:  

“We have an organic orchard of orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees.  As well as an Organic (sic) garden that supplements our kitchen with a wide variety of organic vegetables throughout the year.  We have a small petting farm with ducks, chickens, and miniature ponies.  We have also established an Acuaponics system where we are cultivating over 1000 Tilapia.”

Further, Southwest Key described the facility as, “…an architectural compliment to San Diego’s early ‘Spanish Colonial’ history.”  Southwest Key also claimed that its location would allow UACs to “…enjoy the fruits of living in a large city, yet far enough where there is a suburban serenity to the facility.”  Finally, Southwest Key informed HHS that the facility’s windows “provid(e) a splendid view of the beautiful California sunset.”  

In your testimony just months after this grant was approved, you claimed that a large infusion of taxpayer dollars was necessary because, “…we don’t have enough beds and we don’t have sufficient resources to continue to add beds.”[5]  It is disturbing that HHS is funding such expensive facilities despite claiming to be unable to meet basic needs for UACs.

To examine HHS’ response to the influx of UACs and how taxpayer dollars were used, please answer the following questions:

1.    What was the final “daily rate” paid to Southwest Key for the El Cajon facility?

2.    What is the average “daily rate” paid by HHS for all Southwest Key facilities?

3.    How many UACs are currently housed by Southwest Key?

4.    The documents provided do not indicate any attempt by your department to reduce costs or negotiate with Southwest Key.  Did the department attempt to reduce costs or negotiate?  If so, please provide evidence.  

5.    Documents from your Department appear to show that HHS approved a grant to Southwest Key which provides UACs with “guitar lessons” that have been classified as “vocational training.”  Has HHS approved grants which provide funding for guitar lessons as vocational education?  If so, why are guitar lessons for UACs considered “vocational training”?

6.    In your testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee you claimed, “Temporary shelters cost more than…permanent shelters.”[6]  Why are temporary shelters more expensive than facilities such as Southwest Key’s El Cajon facility?

Thank you for your cooperation and attention in this matter.  I would appreciate a response by November 12, 2014.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Chris Lucas or Kathy Nuebel at (202) 224-5225.


Charles E. Grassley                                                                  
Ranking Member                                                                       
Committee on the Judiciary