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22 June, 2018 00:00 00 AM
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shelters for migrant children

A billion-dollar secretive business

Texas alone, 15 shelters have increased the total licensed capacity to nearly 5,300 children, from around 4,500.
New York Times from Harlingen
A billion-dollar secretive business
A former Walmart Supercenter now being used as a migrant children's shelter is pictured on Monday in in Brownsville, Texas. The facility, which became the focus of nationwide scrutiny, is being used to hold boys aged 10 to 17 who were caught illegally crossing the border. AFP Photo

The business of housing, transporting and watching over migrant children detained along the southwest border is not a multimillion-dollar business, reports New York Times from Harlingen, Tex. It’s a billion-dollar one. The nonprofit Southwest Key Programs has won at least $955 million in federal contracts since 2015 to run shelters and provide other services to immigrant children in federal custody. Its shelter for migrant boys at a former Walmart Supercenter in South Texas has been the focus of nationwide scrutiny, but Southwest Key is but one player in the lucrative, secretive world of the migrant-shelter business. About a dozen contractors operate more than 30 facilities in Texas alone, with numerous others contracted for about 100 shelters in 16 other states.

If there is a migrant-shelter hub in America, then it is perhaps in the four-county Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas, where about a dozen shelters occupy former stores, schools and medical centers. They are some of the region’s biggest employers, though what happens inside is often highly confidential: One group has employees sign nondisclosure agreements, more a fixture of the high-stakes corporate world than of nonprofit child-care centers.

The recent separation of some 2,300 migrant children from their families under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossers has thrust this invisible industry into the spotlight in recent weeks, as images of toddlers and teenagers taken from their parents and detained behind locked doors have set off a political firestorm. President Trump’s order on Wednesday calling for migrant families to be detained together likely means millions more in contracts for private shelter operators, construction companies and defense contractors.

A small network of private prison companies already is operating family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania, and those facilities are likely to expand under the new presidential directive, should it stand up to legal review, analysts said.

The range of contractors working in the migrant-shelter industry varies widely.

BCFS, a global network of nonprofit groups, has received at least $179 million

in federal contracts since 2015 under the government’s so-called unaccompanied alien children program, designed to handle migrant youths who arrive in the country without a parent or other family member. Many of the contractors, some of which are religiously affiliated organizations and emergency-management agencies such as Catholic Charities, see their work as humanitarian aid.

But several large defense contractors and security firms are also building a presence in the system, including General Dynamics, the global aerospace and defense company, and MVM Inc., which until 2008 contracted with the government to supply guards in Iraq. MVM recently put up job postings seeking “bilingual travel youth care workers” in the McAllen area of South Texas. It described the jobs as providing care to immigrant children “while you are accompanying them on domestic flights and via ground transportation to shelters all over the country.”

The migrant-shelter business has been booming since family separations began on a large scale last month along the southwest border.

For years, including during the Obama administration, contractors housed children who were caught illegally crossing the border unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. After the new policy, the contractors put in new beds and expanded beyond their licensed capacities to house the growing numbers of children the government separated from their families. In Texas alone, 15 shelters have received variances from state officials to expand, including adding bedroom space and toilets, increasing the total licensed capacity in Texas to nearly 5,300 children, from around 4,500. The shelters’ rush to house, and cash in on, the surge of children has made them a new target for Democrats, immigrant advocates and a vocal chorus of local, state and federal officials and community leaders.

Many of these contractors, including Southwest Key, whose president and chief executive, Juan Sánchez, has been a well-known and politically connected figure in South Texas for years, saw themselves as the good guys in all the years they were sheltering, housing and educating young people who had crossed the border on their own. But as their client base increasingly has included children forcibly removed from their parents, that public good will has eroded. Critics have released tax records showing Mr. Sánchez’s compensation — more than $770,000 in 2015 alone — and his organization’s usually under-the-radar efforts to open new shelters have become pitched public battles. In Houston, a number of Democratic officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, called on Mr. Sánchez to abandon plans to turn a former homeless shelter into a new migrant youth shelter near downtown. Mr. Turner and others said they would urge state regulators to deny the proposed shelter a child-care-facility license.

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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