WASHINGTON - The House oversight committee stepped up its pressure Thursday on the Trump administration's migrant policies, demanding profit data from companies that run detention facilities, along with records related to alleged mistreatment and neglect of child migrants.
The demands come after the Homeland Security Department's inspector general documented widespread overcrowding and squalor at border facilities where migrants are detained, including crammed cells and a lack of showers and hot meals.
On Wednesday, the committee put a spotlight on the treatment of migrant children with emotional testimony from a Guatemalan woman whose 21-month-old daughter died in May 2018, soon after three weeks in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Dilley, Texas.
"The Committee is investigating the Trump administration's rapidly increasing use of for-profit contractors to detain tens of thousands of immigrants, including a troubling series of reports of health and safety violations and the dramatically escalating and seemingly unchecked costs to U.S. taxpayers for these contracts," said Oversight chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
The committee is focused on CoreCivic, GEO Group, Inc., and DC Capital Partners, LLC_the parent company of Caliburn International and its subsidiary, Comprehensive Health Services, which runs a 2,400-bed shelter for immigrant children in Homestead, Fla.
Homestead is the nation's largest such facility. It's the site of daily protests, and many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates joined the vigil while in nearby Miami last month for the first primary debate.
Critics note that President Donald Trump's former chief of staff and homeland security secretary, John Kelly, joined the company's board after leaving the White House, and they complain that he is profiting from the roughly $750 taxpayers spend per child each day.
"General Kelly helped develop and implement the Administration's child separation policy that resulted in thousands of children being placed in shelters - and he now appears to be reaping a financial reward from this cruel policy," Cummings and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., wrote to Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, which handles longer-term detention of migrant children.
Their letters to the companies, and to HHS and ICE, seek contracts, details about treatment and number of detainees, compliance policies and procedures, and documents related to potential conflicts of interest and political influence.
The three targeted companies are all major players in the private prison and detention center industry, and have been long before the Trump administration's controversial child separation and zero tolerance policies.
CoreCivic has received more than $2.4 billion since 2000 for private prison and detention services, a search of the federal contracts database shows. Nearly all of that - $2 billion - came from the Bureau of Prisons and other agencies within the Justice Department.
About $385 million came from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. That includes $141 million in new ICE contracts last year, up from $135 million in 2017, which itself was up $36 million from the previous year.
Business has improved under Trump, though the company took pains to distance itself from controversy.
"We have not, do not and will not house unaccompanied minors in any of our detention facilities," said Brandon Bissell, a CoreCivic spokesman.
"It's critical to understand that CoreCivic has a 35-year track record of working with both Democrat and Republican administrations to help solve the very types of crises we are now seeing on our southern border," he said.
And he asserted that "misinformation" about for-profit detention companies puts immigrants at risk "because it limits the ability of our government to partner with the private sector to provide safe, humane housing and critical services while they receive the legal due process they're entitled to."
In Texas, Florida-based Geo Group runs ICE processing and detention centers in Conroe, Del Rio, Karnes City, Laredo, Pearsall and Robstown. The company emphasized that its facilities are not used to house unaccompanied minors. The company notes that it has not faced allegations of overcrowding, and asserts that its facilities are modern and air conditioned.
The company has received $783 million from Homeland Security and $2.7 billion from the Justice Department, since 2003.
ICE contracts awarded in 2017 were worth $300 million - a threefold increase over 2016. Contracts last year reached nearly $342 million, and the CEO recently told shareholders that the company had its best quarter ever in the first three months of 2019.
"We are in the process of reviewing the letter, but for more than 30 years, GEO's processing centers have been subject to independent oversight, including full-time, on-site government monitors," said Pablo Paez, executive vice president of corporate relations at Geo Group. "We are committed to transparency, and providing the safest and most humane care possible for those in our 14 ICE processing centers is our top priority."
Caliburn has previously maintained that it provides adequate healthcare, education and recreation for children in its care.
"We welcome the inquiry as a chance to tell our story and dispel misapprehensions about the critical work we do taking care of the teenagers at the Homestead temporary emergency care shelter until they can be placed in a safe home during this unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S.," said spokeswoman Tetiana Anderson.
A subsidiary, Comprehensive Health Services, has received three contracts to operate the Homestead shelter since early 2018, totaling about $545 million. The initial outlay was a $51 million to provide 1,000 beds for unaccompanied minors. The facility was expanded to 2,350 beds. The company received a $222 million contract in July 2018, and another $273 million contract in April.
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