The Outsourced System Making Big Bucks off of “Zero Tolerance”

The Fate of Detained Immigrants is Partly in the Hands of Companies and Nonprofits

CBP detention facility
(Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

The Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy means some companies and organizations stand to make big money from the business of detention. Some of them have questionable track records that raise concerns over their potential treatment of immigrants, particularly children, in their care.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy earlier this year, it signaled a break with the immigration enforcement posture of past administrations, and set off a flurry of new contracts between the federal government and the companies and nonprofits that are paid to provide detention center services.

It also led to the heart-wrenching forced separations of immigrant children from their parents—a policy that dominated headlines this week and was ultimately at least partially halted by an executive order from the President on Wednesday.

But even though it appears that immigrant families who enter the country illegally will no longer be separated, there are still over 2,000 children who have been separated from their parents as of the end of May, and there will likely be more families arriving at ports of entry to the United States seeking legal asylum from violence and persecution in their home countries. How they’re treated and whether children are reunited with their parents may depend largely on how well these companies and nonprofits do their jobs. Robust government oversight of these entities will be important in ensuring that happens.

The largest recipient of taxpayer dollars for taking custody of children no longer in the care of their parents is the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs Inc., which owns 27 immigrant children shelters in Texas, Arizona, and California, according to a version of its website that has since been taken offline.

Southwest Key has been receiving grants and contracts from the federal government to care for “unaccompanied alien children” since at least 2002, according to government data. But the nonprofit, whose total assets in fiscal year 2016 were $101 million, will be receiving nearly half a billion dollars in contracts for fiscal year 2018 for its child detention services, Bloomberg News reported yesterday. Since 2014, the nonprofit has received $1.1 billion from the federal government, according to a Washington Post tally.

Southwest Key’s President and CEO Juan Sánchez called police on Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) earlier this month when he tried to enter the organization’s facility in Brownsville, Texas, near the border.

Like other companies that provide detention services to the federal government—notably private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic—Southwest Key has a history of misconduct.

“We’re the good guys. We’re the people that are taking these kids, putting them in a shelter, and providing the best service that we can for them,” Sánchez told a local TV station this week.

But like other companies that provide detention services to the federal government—notably private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic—Southwest Key has a history of misconduct.

As the Dallas Morning News reported, violations at Southwest Key’s Texas facilities include failing to run background checks on staff members, and “a supervisor using poor judgment and escalating a situation that resulted in a girl harming herself.”

A spokesperson for Southwest Key said in a written statement to the newspaper, “In the last three years, Southwest Key UM [Unaccompanied Minor] shelter programs have been evaluated for compliance on 73,292 standards and we are proud to say that less than 1 percent of those resulted in a deficiency. However, we take each of the deficiencies seriously by self-reporting to invite external investigations as well as performing our own internal investigations.”

The Texas Tribune and Reveal cited nearly 250 violations at Southwest Key’s facilities in Texas alone. After learning about 13 violations at the Brownsville facility, ranging from record-keeping snafus to food safety issues, a Texas state representative wrote a letter opposing a new Southwest Key facility in Houston.

“These shortcomings bring into question the applicant’s bandwidth to adequately provide for children who have been forcibly separated from their loved ones,” Representative Ana Hernandez wrote in a letter to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Former employee Antar Davidson also recently raised concerns that more and more children in Southwest Key’s care were showing signs of trauma. Davidson quit his job at an Arizona facility after he said he was ordered to separate siblings who were hugging each other.

Many of the former employees’ reviews of Southwest Key on the job search website Indeed, while anonymous, may provide insight into how the company operates. Former employees who identified themselves as “case workers,” “youth care workers,” and “teachers,” describe Southwest Key facilities as “unprofessional,” and not equipped to care for children.

According to a document obtained by the Texas Observer, 15 Southwest Key shelters in Texas have requested permission from the state to house hundreds more children than their current child care licenses allow. The state has granted 13 of these requests; the 2 others remain pending. One of the pending requests is from the company’s Casa El Presidente shelter in Brownsville, which Members of Congress toured earlier this week. Representatives told The New York Times that the Casa El Presidente shelter housed 80 young children, including an eight-month-old baby. Forty of them had been recently separated from their parents.

Defense contractors MVM Inc. and General Dynamics also stand to benefit from child detention. But, as the Daily Beast reported, MVM too has a troubled history, including allegations of racial discrimination against employees, and a lawsuit claiming that its guards in Iraq were obtaining “unauthorized weapons and explosives.” MVM has won contracts for each of the last three years, each worth around $50 million, for transportation services related to “unaccompanied alien children,” according to federal data.

General Dynamics, which is the third-largest recipient of federal government contracts, earning $15 billion in fiscal year 2017, doesn’t have a spotless record either. It has been fined $280 million for 23 instances of misconduct since 1995, according to a data analysis by the Project On Government Oversight. Like MVM, the company primarily provides defense services.

However, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is seeking contractors with a different expertise. According to a notice from the agency, many of the children in its care “have faced traumatic situations in their home countries, such as dire poverty, war, forced military or gang recruitment, human trafficking, domestic violence, abuse, familial separation and government neglect. Some are also very young, most have little or no formal education, and are primarily non-English speaking.”

According to ORR, the contractor will play the role of a “child advocate,” who “spends time with the UAC [unaccompanied child], helping the minor process information, educating the minor on legal and care-related issues and assisting the minor make decisions, when requested.”

Some advocates argue that the dialogue proposed here might be hard with children who are particularly young. The Michigan state government says children as young as three months old were separated from their parents at the border and sent to the state. Pointing out the obvious, children this young are “completely unable to advocate for themselves,” wrote Agustin Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Among numerous requirements, the ORR notice states that the contractors must be prepared to implement “a child advocate program for a minimum of 550 minors” in at least eight cities. This contractor will have to work with ORR, Southwest Key, General Dynamics, and others.

In a 2007 report cited by the Dallas Morning News, Southwest Key’s CEO Sánchez wrote that “We have been extremely successful reuniting these children with their families at home and abroad.” Let’s hope so.

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