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.”
“The bottom line is that the care and safety of children should not be entrusted to for-profit corporations.”
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.
“The bottom line is that the care and safety of children should not be entrusted to for-profit corporations,” Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection for Human Rights First, told The Intercept. “As it works to build effective humanitarian systems, the Biden administration should take steps to swiftly unite children with family members, develop contingency plans that avoid the use of influx facilities, and ensure that any brief interim custody is provided by not-for-profit agencies with deep expertise caring for children.”
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 nonemergency 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.
Debbie Wehking, a volunteer with Witness at the Border, a group that monitors child immigration centers and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations, told The Intercept that in recent weeks, traffic and activity at the Homestead location has sharply picked up: more guards milling around, privacy screens being installed on exterior fences, as well as repainting and remodeling. “It’s obvious that they’re making preparations,” Wehking told The Intercept.
Neither Caliburn nor Pacific Architects and Engineers responded to requests for comment about whether they would bid on the contracts.
“Serco decided to not bid as a prime contractor,” Allan Hill, a spokesperson for the firm, told The Intercept. “We are considering to support a prime bidder in only one area — providing case workers to help reunite unaccompanied minors with their families.”
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. The Miami Herald also reported that the facility didn’t have a hurricane plan in place, potentially imperiling the children held there.
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.
“Allegations of sexual and physical abuse are taken extremely seriously by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in HHS’ Administration for Children and Families,” a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said in response to questions about contracting with Caliburn again. “Because we take abuse so seriously, we require extraordinarily comprehensive reporting by all ORR shelters of both sexual abuse and sexual harassment, including inappropriate sexual behavior, as well as physical abuse of the unaccompanied children in our care.”
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.”
A decision to award a multimillion-dollar contract to a for-profit company to detain immigrant children would be a reversal of the administration’s signals to back away from relying on private prisons and detention centers. On January 26, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with privately operated prisons. The administration has issued no such order for for-profit companies in the immigration detention business, though there are reports that it has been considered.
According to latest statistics from Customs and Border Protection, in February, there were 9,297 unaccompanied minors taken into custody, up from 5,694 in January. (Total apprehensions, of adults and minors, increased by 28 percent from January to February.) In March, the Office of Refugee Resettlement received, on average, 337 children per day, and over 8,500 children, mostly teenagers, are currently being housed in Department of Health and Human Services custody.
“The United States’s immigration detention system is profit-driven. And private prisons have been lobbying for the last 30 years to continually expand this system.”
In periods when fewer migrant children are being apprehended by Border Patrol, kids are referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and normally transferred to any of the more than 170 shelters spread throughout the country, which are run by both nonprofit and for-profit companies. In periods of influx, as in 2014 during the Obama administration or in 2018 during the Trump administration, emergency facilities were opened that held significantly more children and were more like detention centers than shelters. To handle the current influx, as BuzzFeed News reported, the administration is also considering using Title 42 to start pushing 17-year-olds back across the border.
This past February, the Biden administration reopened the Carrizo Springs facility in Texas, which is run by the nonprofit Baptist Child and Family Services. The Department of Health and Human Services is also considering housing immigrant kids on a former Navy base, currently run by NASA, in California and on an Army base in Virginia.
Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, told The Intercept, “We are deeply concerned with the recent expansion of child detention, particularly ‘influx’ or ‘emergency’ facilities that lack oversight, and HHS’ use of for-profit companies.”
For other critics of the U.S.’s immigration system, detention of immigrants — whether children or not — is invariably bound up with private companies’ bottom lines. “The United States’s immigration detention system is profit-driven,” said Christina Fialho, co-executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. “And private prisons have been lobbying for the last 30 years to continually expand this system to line the pockets of their shareholders.” She added, “We must abolish immigration detention. Period.”
Correction: March 14, 20201, 7:49 p.m.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Christina Fialho’s name.