Politics & Policy

Business of Unaccompanied Alien Children Is Booming

HHS is giving hundreds of millions to contractors, and they're refusing to talk about it.

It’s not just human smugglers, dubbed “coyotes,” who have a made a fortune from the influx of unaccompanied alien children into the United States. Nonprofit organizations responsible for operating shelters for the illegal-immigrant children have received hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government, and a Republican senator is getting stonewalled in his efforts to find out what’s going on with that money.

One organization, BCFS — also known as Baptist Child and Family Services — has received more than $280 million from the federal government in 2014, according to usaspending.gov. That’s a steep hike from the sum of just less than $42 million that BCFS got from the federal government in 2013, according to usaspending.gov. In just one grant last month, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded BCFS more than $190 million.

Iowa senator Chuck Grassley wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell in July, requesting information about government spending on the housing of illegal-immigrant children and calling BCFS’ track record “a cause for concern.” Grassley noted that nearly 96 percent of BCFS’s 2012 budget came from taxpayer money.

“Despite being almost completely dependent on the public, BCFS has faced heavy criticism for attempting to avoid public scrutiny,” Grassley wrote. “BCFS staff prohibited a Member of Congress from entering the taxpayer-funded detention center at Fort Sill; prevented a Los Angeles Times reporter from interviewing detainees, caseworkers, and other staff; physically pushed a local TV reporter from the entrance of a facility; and attempted to block the reporter’s camera crew from recording across the street from the facility.” Despite such criticism, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has testified that BCFS has done a “remarkable job” housing and identifying the children and then placing them with a sponsor.

Grassley’s letter asked Burwell about the nature of HHS’s relationship with BCFS and other contractors and asked for a response by July 31. A spokesperson for Senator Grassley tells National Review Online in an e-mail that Burwell has not yet responded to his letter and that Grassley’s office has not received any additional information. Earlier this summer, BCFS released a statement, “in response to misinformation reported in the news,” that read in part: “For 70 years, BCFS has provided high-quality care for children, families and communities in, operating with the greatest level of transparency and integrity.” A BCFS spokesperson tells NRO via e-mail that she has been told to refer all requests for information about BCFS to HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement because BCFS is an HHS contractor. Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs in HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, tells NRO in an e-mail, “The Fiscal Year 2014 appropriation for the Unaccompanied Alien Children program is $868 million. There has also been an additional $44 million so far for the UAC program via the HHS secretary’s transfer authority.”

Southwest Key Programs, another nonprofit HHS contractor, has received more than $122 million in 2014, according to usaspending.gov. In 2013, Southwest Key was named the National Council of La Raza’s affiliate of the year. Juan Sanchez, the president and founder of Southwest Key, accepted the $25,000 award from La Raza — a Hispanic advocacy group that supports illegal immigration — and serves on La Raza’s board, according to Sanchez’s biography on Southwest Key’s website.

“Because of Southwest Key’s work, thousands of youth have been diverted from prisons, jails, institutions — able to stay at home with their families and out of trouble,” Sanchez’s biography says. “Southwest Key has reunified thousands of immigrant children with their families and provided these unaccompanied minors with 24-hour care, education, medical and clinical services in ten shelters along the Southern US border.”

A spokesperson for Southwest Key also declined to comment to National Review Online about the shelters it operates and said all interview requests about the unaccompanied-minors program must go through HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. And even though the contractors receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government appear coy about answering questions regarding the funding they receive from the government, others have touted the money such shelters would bring to their local communities. An Oklahoma mayor has said he expected the presence of a shelter in his community to bring approximately $1.2 million to his community. And Democrats in suburban San Diego have said the presence of a shelter in Escondido, Calif., could have resulted in an additional $8.5 million and hundreds of new jobs.

While the shelters may be intended to house the illegal-immigrant youth as they await deportation proceedings, HHS secretary Johnson, Southwest Key, and others appear proud to have released the immigrant children to sponsors living across the United States. And the financial incentive to operate such shelters has only grown as time has gone on. The deadline to apply for an HHS grant, worth an estimated $350 million, to provide residential services for illegal-immigrant children passed Tuesday.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include comment from Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs in HHS’s Administration for Children and Families. 

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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