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Investigation finds government contractor violated policy while transporting immigrant children

Find more from Kids on the Line, a series by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

When migrant children were separated from their parents this summer, a defense contractor hired by the federal government helped carry out the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy by transporting some to facilities. Special correspondent Aura Bogado from The Center for Investigative Reporting's Reveal team offers a look at one family’s experience and possible policy violations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than 200 children remain separated from their families as a result of the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy.

    One of the challenges of that policy was transporting the large numbers of immigrant children the government now shelters.

    From the Center for Investigative Reporting's Reveal team, Aura Bogado reports.

  • Aura Bogado:

    Seven-year old Wilson remembers the place where he spent his first nights away from his mother.

  • Wilson(through translator):

    This is the first office we went to. We went in here. I slept in this room.

  • Aura Bogado:

    Wilson's mother, Maria Antonia Larios Soto, says the two of them made their journey northward toward the U.S. border to escape violence in their home town in Guatemala.

    At the end of May, as they walked across the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona to seek asylum, they were apprehended by Border Patrol for crossing without permission. Hours later, a Border Patrol agent told Larios Soto she would be separated from her son.

  • Maria Antonia Larios Soto (through translator):

    We were all scared because officers would tell us that we were going to be deported and our kids were going to stay here. And we wondered, how could that be possible? Nobody gives up their children just like that. They are the most precious thing for us.

  • Aura Bogado:

    Larios Soto recalls the very moment Wilson was taken away from her.

  • Maria Antonia Larios Soto (through translator):

    Around 4:00 a.m., they took him away from me. They didn't tell me where they were going to take him. I asked them, but they said they couldn't tell me.

    The only thing they told me is that he was going to be placed with other kids because he couldn't stay with me.

  • Aura Bogado:

    What was that first night like for you without your son?

  • Maria Antonia Larios Soto (through translator):

    It's a terrible life to be all alone and not knowing where he is and not being able to talk to him. I had never been away from him. It was so hard.

  • Aura Bogado:

    Immigration and Customs Enforcement paid a company called MVM, Inc., to transport Wilson to a shelter contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. ICE allows its contractors to bring immigrant children to their own offices, like this one leased by MVM in central Phoenix, Arizona.

    But ICE said its contract doesn't allow contractors to hold children for more than 24 hours. The facilities are waiting areas for minors awaiting same-day transportation. These offices are not overnight housing facilities, per the contract with ICE.

    But in Wilson's case, he spent two nights at one of these facilities.

    Lianna Dunlap lives next door, and over a couple of days witnessed at least two groups of children entering the building. She filmed this video the day after Wilson was brought there.

  • Lianna Dunlap:

    I was doing my dishes, and then I see a van pull up, and I noticed that the van has kids in it. And then they walked inside.

    And I got a really weird feeling. I was like, that didn't seem right or normal. Or I just didn't get a good feeling from it. And I was like, I'm going to go get my phone, and then I started recording it.

  • Aura Bogado:

    Dunlap says she witnessed a separate group leaving the building.

  • Lianna Dunlap:

    As about four or five vans pull up, and that's when I saw them all come out. And it was probably like 80 to 90 kids come out of there. They just started having them come straight out of the door onto the vans.

  • Aura Bogado:

    From just outside the office windows, she saw a blowup mattress, a box labeled "Baby Shampoo," and medication schedules, suggesting extended stays.

    Though the building is now vacant, at least 200 children came through here over the course of two weeks. We were able to view an internal government database that showed, in addition to Wilson, at least 15 other children stayed here for more than 24 hours.

    In a second Phoenix office building leased by MVM, a concerned insurance executive also took video and photos after he saw children washing their hair in the sinks of this shared bathroom.

    Neither of the buildings meets requirements for a government-approved shelter. They have no outdoor playground, no kitchens, showers, and no bedrooms to keep age groups separated.

    Founded by three former Secret Service agents in 1979, MVM has contracted with the federal government for more than 30 years, providing guards for sites, including prisons, as well as CIA personnel in Iraq. Since 2014, they have received contracts worth up to about $225 million for the transportation of immigrant children.

    Yet, this summer, MVM clarified their role in a statement posted on their website,"The current services MVM provides consists of transporting undocumented families and unaccompanied children to government-licensed facilities. We have not and currently do not operate shelters or any other type of housing for minors."

    When we reached out to MVM about our findings that multiple children had stayed overnight, they declined an interview, but responded with this statement: "When we identified several instances in which our policy wasn't followed, MVM instituted tighter controls and gave employees instruction to prevent these regrettable exceptions from happening again."

  • Pratap Chatterjee:

    Well, the primary goal of any contractor is profit. If the well-being of children is profitable to them, it is potentially possible that they will do a better job.

  • Aura Bogado:

    Pratap Chatterjee is the executive director of CorpWatch, a research group advocating for corporate accountability.

  • Pratap Chatterjee:

    It is not entirely surprising that MVM has been accused of skirting their obligations in Arizona, because these accusations have come up in the past.

  • Aura Bogado:

    During the Iraq War, the CIA pulled out of a $1 billion contract with MVM for failing to provide the full number of guards for government personnel.

  • Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.:

    Well, I just ask people to think, if it was your 3-year-old grandson placed in the hands of strangers, how would you want your 3-year-old to be treated?

  • Aura Bogado:

    Representative Zoe Lofgren, ON the House Judiciary Committee, which supervises the Department of Homeland Security and ICE:

  • Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.:

    If there is misconduct, then I think there ought to be ramifications, either a loss of profit or termination of the contract, depending on how severe the misbehavior was.

  • Aura Bogado:

    ICE did look into MVM's overnight stays and says they have "outlined several specific adjustments with the contractor to rectify that issue going forward."

    But, at the same time, ICE awarded MVM a new contract to provide translation services potentially worth up to $185 million. Lofgren says more should be done and asked the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, to investigate MVM's treatment of immigrant children based on our reporting.

  • Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.:

    Ultimately, it's the government's responsibility, and they can't shirk that responsibility merely by signing a contract.

  • Aura Bogado:

    We contacted the office of every Republican member of the House and Senate serving on committees that oversee ICE, but none agreed to be interviewed.

    After spending his seventh birthday away from his mother in a shelter, Wilson and his mother reunited in July and are living with family in Arkansas. They drove together to an orientation at Wilson's new school. The day before he started first grade, Wilson was excited to meet his teacher.

  • Woman:

    You have a nice smile. And you have happy eyes.

  • Aura Bogado:

    This moment is why Larios Soto says she was seeking to cross the border in the first place, for Wilson to have a good school in a safe environment.

  • Maria Antonia Larios Soto (through translator):

    We don't come here just because we want to live fancy lives. We come here to be safe and give our children a better life. Our lives are always at risk over there. When you leave your house, you don't know if you will come back alive or in a coffin. It's the worst. That's how it is in our country.

  • Aura Bogado:

    Larios Soto can now remain with Wilson in the United States for one year on a humanitarian parole, but, after that, the future is uncertain.

    And it remains uncertain for the hundreds of other children who are waiting to be reunited with their families.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Aura Bogado in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

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