Comments by Brian Shilhavy
Editor, Health Impact News
Unaccompanied minors coming across the Mexico – U.S. border has been a problem under many presidents’ terms.
In 2016 we published an article about Sen. Rob Portman’s six-month investigation looking at 125,000 unaccompanied minors who had crossed the U.S. borders into the United States since 2011, reportedly fleeing violence and unrest in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Some excerpts:
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) recently published a six-month investigation looking at 125,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed the U.S. borders into the United States since 2011, reportedly fleeing violence and unrest in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
This U.S. Senate report concluded that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has failed to protect these children from human trafficking, leaving them vulnerable to abuses at the hands of government-approved caretakers.
U.S. law requires HHS to ensure that unaccompanied alien children (UAC) are protected from human trafficking and other forms of abuse.
However, this is not happening.
The fact that the United States is a popular destination for child trafficking has been well documented:
The causes of the surge of UACs are disputed, but all stakeholders, including HHS, agree that one reason UACs come to this country is that they are ‘brought into the United States by human trafficking rings.’ According to the State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, ‘[t]he United States is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, transgender individuals, and children—both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals—subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.’ Human trafficking involves transporting or harboring human beings, often for financial gain, through the use of fraud, force, or coercion. (Report)
The Senate report notes several “Systemic Deficiencies” in the government’s failure to protect these vulnerable children from organized criminal trafficking:
- HHS’s Process for Verifying a Category 3 Sponsor’s Identity and Relationship with a UAC Is Unreliable and Subject to Abuse
- HHS Is Unable to Safeguard Children from Sponsors Attempting to Accumulate Multiple Children
- HHS Failed to Require Background Checks on Non-Sponsor Adult Household Members or on Backup Sponsors
- HHS Policy Allowed Non-Relatives with Criminal Histories to Sponsor Children
- HHS Does Not Ensure a Sponsor Has Adequate Income to Support a UAC
- HHS Approves Placements with Sponsors Who May Not Remain in the Country
- Sponsors Often Inflict Legal Harm on UACs by Not Ensuring Their Appearance At Immigration Proceedings
In this investigative report published in The Intercept, reporter John Washington investigates the private companies vying for federal funds to process the UACs now flocking to the border under Biden, and their history of child sex abuse.
PRIVATE COMPANIES MANEUVERING TO CASH IN ON BIDEN’S CHILD MIGRANT DETENTION
Two of the firms poised to vie for new lucrative child-detention contracts have checkered pasts in migrant detention.
by John Washington
THE INFLUX OF children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border over the last three months is focusing attention — and criticism — on the Biden administration’s immigration policies. Even as officials claim that they are processing and releasing children as quickly as possible, a bottleneck has kept thousands of children in Border Patrol custody longer than the court-mandated maximum 72 hours, with more than 100 kids held for more than 10 days, sometimes in harsh conditions.
The influx has reached a level where Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to, as a Homeland Security statement put it, “look at every available option to quickly expand physical capacity for appropriate lodging.”
In its effort to house child migrants as they pass through various agencies’ custody on their way to placement in the U.S., the federal government is likely to turn to an all-too-familiar resource: Private companies that operate custodial facilities which straddle the line between shelters and detention centers.
Even as scrutiny fell on decisions like the one to reopen a controversial emergency “influx shelter” in Texas, less attention has been paid to the for-profit security firms that are being charged with caring for some of these children.
At least three companies that have taken on past roles in immigration detention or enforcement, including one with a history of operating holding centers for children, are poised to vie for multimillion-dollar contracts to operate, staff, and do logistical work for the administration’s efforts to process and place migrant children.
The trio of companies — Caliburn International, the British security company Serco Group, and Pacific Architects and Engineers — have already posted job listings related to a contract to operate a child-detention center in Homestead, Florida, with a checkered history of abuse. Caliburn, which already holds contracts for child-detention centers, and Serco were among the sponsors of a government-run session to inform private-detention firms about the bidding process on the Homestead facility.
Critics of harsh immigration policies and the private detention industry are watching with a wary eye, noting that two of the firms poised to bid for contracts have poor track records with accountability and abuse in migrant detention.
CALIBURN, ON WHOSE board former Department of Homeland Security secretary and White House chief of staff John Kelly sits, is already running Trail House, a non-emergency facility outside El Paso, Texas, with the capacity to hold 512 children. Caliburn, which is owned by the private equity firm DC Capital Partners, was quietly awarded the contract last August, and as of last month, there were at least 70 children held there.
Late last month, the Miami Herald reported that the Biden administration was planning to reopen the Homestead detention center, formerly called Homestead Temporary Shelter and now rebranded as Biscayne Influx Care Facility, for which a bidding process is currently underway.
Caliburn, Serco, and Pacific Architects and Engineers have posted job listings for the site. There have been at least one of two virtual “Industry Days” — online information sessions to help guide and inform companies about the bidding process — run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families; Caliburn and Serco were listed among the sponsors of the March 10 session.
Though the timeline is unclear, according to one of the Industry Day programs, the facility could be open by the fourth quarter of this year.
TWO COMPANIES POISED to try for roles related to the Homestead facility have checkered histories in immigrant detention. One of them, Serco, has not contracted to do immigration detention in the U.S., though in 2015, the company pitched itself to members of Congress with family detention in mind. (Serco was awarded a $1.25 billion federal contract in 2013 to help institute online exchanges for the Affordable Care Act.)
In the U.K. and Australia, however, the company faced allegations of sexual assaults by its employees against female detainees in their custody. After a parliamentary investigation, Serco apologized and revealed that it had dismissed 10 of its employees. In the U.K., the company’s prison contracts were also reviewed in 2013 amid allegations that it was charging the government for services it was not providing. The company was fined 23 million pounds, or over $30 million, and no criminal charges were brought against it.
Caliburn and its subsidiary Comprehensive Health Services previously faced allegations of sexual assault against children at the Homestead facility. After it was shuttered in 2019, a report revealed that there were four separate child sex abuse claims, resulting in the firing of one employee and the resignation of two others. The investigation, conducted by the Administration for Children and Families, also found that Caliburn did not run child-abuse background checks for their employees.
A damning 2019 Amnesty International report on Homestead found that the “temporary influx” designation enabled the facility “to evade US legal requirements for unaccompanied children that apply to permanent ORR shelters” — referring to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which operates a network of shelters and residential centers for immigrant youth.
The Amnesty report described the facility as “a highly restrictive setting where children are required to wear bar codes, are provided with insufficient language services, inappropriate remote case management services, potentially inadequate educational services and an inadequate system to report allegations of sexual abuse.” (In response to the Amnesty report, Caliburn CEO Jim Van Dusen said that “all staff members at Homestead pass FBI fingerprint background checks, which highlight relevant information needed to ensure safety,” though he did not directly address the sexual abuse allegations.)
Comprehensive Health Services was still contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services for nearly $82 million in the 2021 fiscal year, according to the latest government disclosures. The firm was also awarded over $17 million, just for this fiscal year, specifically for the Homestead facility, the latest in a series of payments to Comprehensive Health Services to keep the detention center “warm,” or operationally ready, in case it houses children again.
The high costs at Homestead have come under scrutiny before: The facility cost the government $750 per day for each child detained. With around 2,300 children detained at some points, Homestead was putting the U.S. government back nearly $2 million every day. Both the Department of Health and Human Services and Caliburn declined to respond to requests from The Intercept to detail how the money was being allocated.
Between 2014 and 2018, there were over 4,500 complaints of sexual abuse filed by minors in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. A Government Accountability Office report from last September issued guidelines for the Department of Health and Human Services to improve grant application reviews, which included the recommendation to “conduct an audit of each facility’s compliance with ORR standards on preventing and responding to sexual assault.”
Read the full article at The Intercept.