By Josh Leach on February 1, 2019
The practice of holding immigrant kids in detention is skyrocketing in the United States, with the number of children in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody growing from less than 3,000 to nearly 15,000 in the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
For many families, this has meant prolonged separation and trauma. For a handful of contractors, however, it means big business.
Isn’t child detention illegal?
Yes, it is. U.S. laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and a binding legal agreement (the “Flores Settlement”) place strict limits on how long the government can detain immigrant children and under what conditions. The core principle of these safeguards is that the government must prioritize the best interests of the child, placing kids in the “least restrictive setting” and reunifying them with family whenever possible and consistent with their well-being.
In theory, therefore, ORR shelters were never meant to be detention camps. They were set up initially to provide temporary places to stay until unaccompanied minors can be placed into the care of their family members or other sponsors.
This began to change under the Trump administration’s notorious family separation policy, when thousands of immigrant children were taken from their parents and other relatives at the border, labeled now as “unaccompanied minors,” and warehoused in growing ORR facilities. A report this month by government inspectors found that thousands more children may have been separated under this policy than previously known.
Even as the Department of Homeland Security was placing ever more kids into ORR custody, other administration policies made it harder for them to be released. As laid out in a class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others last week, the administration implemented new fingerprinting requirements for the households of all potential sponsors in April 2018. They proceeded to share this information with immigration enforcement in order to arrest undocumented family members who came forward.
As internal administration memos revealed, these policies were deliberately intended as a “deterrent,” cruelly targeting parents and other relatives who had helped their children reach safety in the United States, often by using the only channels available to them: coyotes and smugglers who control most crossings.
While the administration eventually scaled back these requirements, to this day they still demand the fingerprints of all parents who come forward, and they refuse to put in place any firewall protecting this information from being used for immigration enforcement.
The inevitable result has been that far fewer sponsors are able to come forward without risking arrest and deportation, and far more children are forced to remain in ORR custody. The government’s “temporary shelters” have gradually turned into bloated detention camps.
If these policies are against the law, though, why are they still happening?
There’s an ancient saying about the investigation of any crime:
Always ask, who benefits?
A number of companies have won lucrative contracts with the government to operate child shelters. One of these shelters, the ORR facility in Homestead, Florida, has become the latest flashpoint in the growth of child detention in the United States.
Advocates won a major victory this month by shutting down the notorious Tornillo facility – a tent city detention camp for migrant children located in the Texas desert. This announcement was timed alongside the dramatic expansion of the Homestead facility, which is slated to nearly double the number of children in custody this month. One of the frightening possibilities this raises is that many of the kids who were previously warehoused at Tornillo may simply be transferred there.
The Miami New Times reported on Sunday on some of the corporate actors who are making a profit from the expansion of this facility. It turns out, they are a tightly-interconnected group – many with a checkered past and close ties to the Trump administration:
- Comprehensive Health Services, the company that co-manages the facility, was awarded a $600,000 tax break from then-Florida governor Rick Scott, the New Times reports. This deal occurred just five months after the company paid $3.8 million to the Justice Department to settle a major Medicare fraud case.
- Medicare fraud is a subject on which former Governor Rick Scott knows a thing or two, as he served as CEO of the Hospital Corporation of America during a federal investigation that eventually forced the company to pay what was then the largest healthcare fraud settlement in U.S. history.
- Incidentally, the program coordinator for Comprehensive Health Services’ ORR shelters, including Homestead, is a former employee of Hospital Corporation of America.
- Comprehensive Health Services is owned by Caliburn International, a corporation founded by D.C. Capital Partners, which has close ties to former top-ranking Trump administration official John Kelly.
- Defense giant General Dynamics won a contract to provide “training and technical assistance” at the Homestead facility, according to the New Times.
- As the Daily Beast reported in June 2018, General Dynamics has allegedly “faced $280.3 million in penalties for 23 misconduct cases since 1995,” involving underpayment of wages and other regulatory and labor violations.
- General Dynamics also has a controversial history of working with security contractor Sallyport Global, which in turn is also owned by DC Capital Partners – the John Kelly-linked firm mentioned above that created the corporation that now owns Comprehensive Health Services.
- Former Trump administration defense chief Jim Mattis is also a former board member of General Dynamics.
- According to the New Times, at least 14 children at the Homestead facility were transferred to an adult immigration detention center as soon as they turned 18. This detention center is owned by the GEO Group – a notorious prison and detention contractor that has been implicated in medical neglect, forced labor, and other human rights abuses at the facilities they operate.
- The GEO Group has made major campaign contributions to Donald Trump, and hired a lobbyist who previously worked on behalf of Trump’s Florida golf courses, as reported in the New York Times.
This closed loop of profit and power allows a small number of corporate actors to reap enormous gains from the unlawful and immoral practice of detaining immigrant children. These policies create a powerful financial incentive to perpetuate the detention system, even when it violates human rights and U.S. law.
This month, Donald Trump has shut the government down and threatened to do so again, if Congress does not agree to divert billions more dollars to fund detention, deportation, and border militarization. Examining the federal contracts at Homestead provides a small window into where and how that money will be spent, and the interests and lobbyists who stand to benefit.
The U.S. public needs to speak with one voice that these policies do not reflect our values or the common good. Before the government can close again, contact your legislators to tell them we do not want our tax dollars to fund child detention.
Photo Credit: iStock – Aynur_sib