The Big Business of Detaining Families Creates a Serious Fraud Risk
By Poppy Alexander
The massive public outcry about family separations at the border has spotlighted an area of federal spending that often gets ignored-the massive business that is immigration detention for children and families. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of HHS, spent approximately $3.4 billion on private companies to shelter and detain these kids in just the last four years. Yet little data is kept about how the money is spent. Government agencies have no real way of knowing if these contractors are meeting their contractual obligations to provide even basic levels of care. Unfortunately, many of these contractors appear to be ignoring their contractual and moral obligations to take care of the children under their roofs.
An investigation by Reveal and the Texas Tribune published on June 20, 2018, found federal contractors committed multiple abuses against the children they are hired to keep safe. One contractor, Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas, unnecessarily and dangerously prescribes psychotropic drugs to children in the interest of keeping them compliant and lethargic. The potential consequences of misprescribing strong medications-particularly for children-are dire. The problems at Shiloh are not new. In 2014, Texas Representative Pete Olson tried to find out what made Shiloh worth the millions paid by the government. He got a slammed door in his face.
That same Reveal investigation found that Southwest Key Programs, one of the largest contractors in this arena, committed 246 Texas state violations last year. Southwest Key is a nonprofit organization, but manages to pay its executives over half a million dollars a year. As Southwest Key’s government contracts have increased, so has their executive pay.
Sadly, these kinds of abuses are not limited to the government contractors housing refugee children. Adults too may suffer at the hands of GEO Group, CoreCivic, and the other large prison contract companies that house refugees and others in immigration detention. A recent Human Rights Watch report found widespread evidence of subpar medical services for immigration detainees, leading to dozens of deaths. These private prison companies are known for their understaffing, lack of basic health care, and dangerous conditions. Serious consequences seem inevitable under those conditions. The government may pay these companies for a certain number of staff or a certain level of care-but that does not mean they are providing it. It can extraordinarily difficult to know what goes on in detention facilities, which are by their nature shut. Even U.S. government officials are often denied access. It often takes a brave insider willing to come forward to expose problems to the light of day.
President Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy will continue to fill up the private facilities housing immigrants and refugees. The June 20, 2018 Executive Order that supposedly ended family separation also seeks to hold families in immigration detention-without any indication of an end date. This will only serve to increase the number of facilities in operation and the number of dollars at stake. And with the increased government spending comes increased risk of private contractors failing to meet their basic obligations to provide decent services.
If you have any information about fraud in immigration detention facilities, please contact us.