As the U.S. government gears up to take custody of more children crossing the border, private security companies are emerging on the scene to snag lucrative contracts to provide shelters, beds, and staff. And with contractors’ interest in domestic services growing, experts say they expect to see even more federal contracts awarded to such firms.
Putting together the resources to provide care for children could be a challenge for contractors new to this space, according to health and security experts.
“We have actually now many decades of history looking at the movement of contractors into new services, and it tells us that they do it frequently. But it also tells us that it’s difficult when they first do, and there’s more problems when a company first starts delivering a service than afterwards,” said Deborah Avant, director of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver.
Even before President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy separated children from their parents—adding to the numbers of unaccompanied minors the government now oversees, which in total is 11,786 kids—the Health and Human Services Department was looking for contractors to provide temporary shelters should the number of children at the border increase.
“The challenge that we had faced was that when there were increases in the numbers of arriving children, there was a need to have providers who were able to operate large-scale facilities, and there were only a very limited set of unaccompanied-children providers who had that experience, so there was a strong interest in trying to find ways to bring more competition into that process,” said Mark Greenberg, who was head of HHS’s Administration for Children and Families in the Obama administration.
“At the same time, there was a strong concern about ensuring that providers were qualified and capable and appropriate for providing those services,” he added.
In 2017, HHS solicited contractors to provide emergency temporary shelters on federally owned or leased sites. “This is for temporary shelter in the event additional capacity is needed … beyond what we have available in our grantee network, and transitional foster care is an important component, particularly for children with special needs and tender age children, particularly those under the age of 13,” an HHS official said in a phone conference regarding the contract, according to a transcript.
Among the awardees was MVM, Inc., which landed an $8 million contract over five years to provide services for the care of children who are deemed unaccompanied, including those separated from their families.
According to data from GovTribe, most of MVM’s prior work has been with the Justice and Homeland Security departments. The company has also provided security services in Iraq, but The Wall Street Journal in 2008 reported that MVM had lost most of its contract with the CIA after failing to provide enough armed guards.
The contract with HHS would be the first in which MVM provides emergency services for the care of children, according to GovTribe data.
MVM said in an emailed statement that it has not performed any emergency support services, such as running a shelter or providing beds, since the contract began in September 2017.
“Under this program MVM is required to maintain readiness in the event [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] requests services from MVM,” the company said. “To date we have not performed any emergency support services for ORR nor do we anticipate providing any services in the near future.”
The company’s director of homeland security and public safety, Joe Arabit, declined to comment on why MVM does not expect to provide services in the near future.
HHS did not respond to requests for comment on MVM’s work for the department and why the company was awarded the contract.
But should the company have to scale up resources quickly, health and security experts say this could be a hurdle for a contractor with limited experience in this space.
“Yes, I am concerned about contractors who are asked to ramp up quickly,” said a former HHS official who asked for anonymity due to current employment restrictions. “And now it seems like they need more based on the family separation, and these little, much younger children—I worry about organizations who don’t have prior child-welfare experience being asked to care for pretty vulnerable children.”
Avant said that a growing homeland security budget is luring contractors to more domestic work. “A lot of contractors have been looking more towards the domestic space partly through the homeland security lens, but then that just tumbled over into a variety of other agencies,” she said.
Even contractors with more experience in child care may face significant challenges in recruiting all the needed service personnel for these shelters. “The one facility we went to, which was the converted Walmart—that’s a place that has been used to taking kids and they said they were [90 people short] in terms of mental health providers,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who recently visited facilities in South Texas.
Southwest Key Programs, another recipient of the 2017 HHS contract for temporary shelters, operates its Casa Padre shelter out of a converted Walmart in Brownsville, Texas.
MVM, meanwhile, said it currently provides only one service concerning immigrant children—their transportation to HHS facilities—and does not run any shelters. Whether the company will add to the cadre of shelters currently in operation remains unclear.
“At the direction of the company’s leadership, we have removed job postings related to readiness operations under the current zero-tolerance policy,” the company said. “MVM has not pursued any new contracts associated with undocumented families and children since the implementation of the current policy.”