De­tain­ing im­mi­grant chil­dren is now a bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Martha Men­doza and Larry Fenn

SAN AN­TO­NIO, Texas — De­tain­ing im­mi­grant chil­dren has mor­phed into a surg­ing in­dus­try in the U.S. that now reaps $1 bil­lion an­nu­ally — a ten­fold in­crease over the past decade, an As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis finds.

Health and Hu­man Ser­vices grants for shel­ters, foster care and other child wel­fare ser­vices for de­tained un­ac­com­pa­nied and separated chil­dren soared from $74.5 mil­lion in 2007 to $958 mil­lion dol­lars in 2017. The agency is also re­view­ing a new round of pro­pos­als amid a grow­ing ef­fort by the White House to keep im­mi­grant chil­dren in govern­ment cus­tody.

Cur­rently, more than 11,800 chil­dren, from a few months old to 17, are housed in nearly 90 fa­cil­i­ties in 15 states — Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia, Con­necti­cut, Florida, Illi­nois, Kansas, Mary­land, Michi­gan, New Jer­sey, New York, Ore­gon, Penn­syl­va­nia, Texas, Vir­ginia and Wash­ing­ton.

They are be­ing held while their par­ents await im­mi­gra­tion pro­ceed­ings or, if the chil­dren ar­rived un­ac­com­pa­nied, are re­viewed for pos­si­ble asy­lum them­selves.

In May, the agency is­sued re­quests for bids for five projects that could to­tal more than $500 mil­lion for beds, foster and ther­a­peu­tic care, and “se­cure care,” which means em­ploy­ing guards. More con­tracts are ex­pected to come up for bids in Oc­to­ber.

Health and Hu­man Ser­vices spokesman Ken­neth Wolfe said the agency will award bids “based on the num­ber of beds needed to pro­vide ap­pro­pri­ate care for mi­nors in the pro­gram.”

The agency’s fa­cil­i­ties in­clude lo­ca­tions for what the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion calls “ten­der age” chil­dren, typ­i­cally un­der 5. Three shel­ters in Texas have been des­ig­nated for tod­dlers and in­fants. Oth­ers — in­clud­ing in tents in Tornillo, Texas, and a tent-and-build­ing tem­po­rary shel­ter in Homestead, Fla. — are hous­ing older teens.

Over the past decade, by far the largest re­cip­i­ents of tax­payer money have been South­west Key and Bap­tist Child & Fam­ily Ser­vices, AP’s anal­y­sis shows. From 2008 to date, South­west Key has re­ceived $1.39 bil­lion in grant fund­ing to op­er­ate shel­ters; Bap­tist Child & Fam­ily Ser­vices has re­ceived $942 mil­lion.

A Texas-based or­ga­ni­za­tion called In­ter­na­tional Ed­u­ca­tional Ser­vices also was a big re­cip­i­ent, land­ing more than $72 mil­lion in the last fis­cal year be­fore fold­ing amid a se­ries of com­plaints about the con­di­tions in its shel­ters.

The re­cip­i­ents of the money run the gamut from non­prof­its, re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions and for­profit en­ti­ties. The or­ga­ni­za­tions orig­i­nally con­cen­trated on hous­ing and de­tain­ing at-risk youth, but shifted their fo­cus to im­mi­grants when tens of thou­sands of Cen­tral Amer­i­can chil­dren started ar­riv­ing at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der in re­cent years.

They are es­sen­tially govern­ment con­trac­tors for the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment — the fed­eral agency that ad­min­is­ters the pro­gram keep­ing im­mi­grant chil­dren in cus­tody. Or­ga­ni­za­tions like South­west Key in­sist that the chil­dren are well cared for and that the vast sums of money they re­ceive are nec­es­sary to house, trans­port, ed­u­cate and pro­vide med­i­cal care for thou­sands of chil­dren while com­ply­ing with govern­ment reg­u­la­tions and court or­ders.

The re­cent up­roar sur­round­ing separated fam­i­lies at the bor­der has placed the lo­ca­tions at the cen­ter of the con­tro­versy. A for­mer Wal­Mart in Texas is now a South­west Key fa­cil­ity that’s be­lieved to be the big­gest child im­mi­grant fa­cil­ity in the coun­try, and First Lady Me­la­nia Trump vis­ited an­other South­west Key lo­ca­tion in Phoenix.

Ad­vo­cates on both sides of the aisle crit­i­cize the grow­ing num­ber of kids housed in govern­ment shel­ters, but they have dif­fer­ent rea­sons — and they blame each other.

“You can’t put a child in a prison. You can­not. It’s im­moral,” said Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand, a New York Demo­crat who has been vis­it­ing shel­ters.

Gil­li­brand said the shel­ters will con­tinue to ex­pand be­cause no sys­tem is in place to re­unite fam­i­lies separated at the bor­der. “These are real con­cerns that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has not thought through at all,” she said.

But Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump says crack­ing down on im­mi­gra­tion ul­ti­mately can lead to spend­ing less money and hav­ing fewer im­mi­grants in govern­ment cus­tody.

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