Wed, Oct 09, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Private sector seeks to profit by detaining migrant children

Privatization might reduce bureaucracy and raise efficiency, but critics say it is difficult to hold for-profit care providers accountable

By Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza  /  AP, SAN BENITO, Texas

Illustration: Mountain People

On a recent day in a remodeled brick church in the Rio Grande Valley, a caregiver tried to soothe a toddler, offering him a sippy cup. The adult knew next to nothing about the little three-year-old whose few baby words appeared to be Portuguese. Shelter staff had tried desperately to find his family, calling the Brazilian consulate and searching Facebook.

Nearby, infants in strollers were rolled through the building, pushed by workers in bright blue shirts lettered “CHS,” short for Comprehensive Health Services, the private, for-profit company paid by the US government to hold some of the smallest migrant children.

Sheltering migrant children has become a growing business for the Florida-based government contractor, as the number of minors in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. More than 50 babies, toddlers and teens were closely watched on this day inside the clean, well-lit shelter surrounded by chain-link fences.

The children, many in matching black pants and gray sweatshirts, are officially under the custody of the federal government. However, a joint investigation by The Associated Press and PBS television’s Frontline show has found that US President Donald Trump’s administration has started shifting some of the caretaking of migrant children toward the private sector and contractors instead of the largely religious-based nonprofit grantees that have long cared for the children.

So far, the only private company caring for migrant children is CHS, owned by Washington-area contractor Caliburn International Corp. In June, CHS held more than 20 percent of all migrant children in government custody and, even as the number of children has declined, the company’s government funding for their care has continued to flow. That is partly because CHS is still staffing a large Florida facility with 2,000 workers, even though the last children left in August.

Trump administration officials say CHS is keeping the Florida shelter on standby in case they need to quickly provide beds for more migrant teens, and that they are focused on the quality of care contractors can provide, not about who profits from the work.

“It’s not something that sits with me morally as a problem,” US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement Director Jonathan Hayes said. “They’re not getting any additional money other than the normal grant or contract that would be received. We’re not paying them more just because they’re for profit.”

Asked during a White House visit about the AP and Frontline investigation, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar pushed back and said the findings were “misleading.”

However, he did not address the government’s ongoing privatization of the care for migrant children.

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly joined Caliburn’s board in the spring after stepping down from decades of government service. He had earlier served as secretary of homeland security, where he backed the idea of taking children from their parents at the border, saying that it would discourage people from trying to immigrate or seek asylum.

Critics say this means that Kelly now stands to financially benefit from a policy that he helped create.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who served on a federal advisory panel with Kelly, said that the retired general told him firsthand that he believed enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy would serve as a deterrent.

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