Multimillion-dollar facility once used to help with border crisis now sits empty

CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas – Off the beaten path, down a gravel road, past the scrub brush and under a big billboard is a multimillion-dollar answer to part of last summer's border crisis.

A sprawling compound just outside the Dimmit County town of Carrizo Springs is a shelter for unaccompanied children caught crossing the border. The shelter was open less than a month and now sits empty, yet taxpayers continue to foot the bill for the facility.

"They've got great dorm rooms," said U.S. Health and Human Services' Mark Weber during an interview with NBC in July, shortly after the facility opened. "(It's) very reminiscent of my college dorm room."

The federal government scrambled to find shelter space for tens of thousands of kids streaming across the border, while facing mounting allegations these children were being forced to stay in cramped and dangerous conditions at Border Patrol detention facilities.

Numbers from Customs and Border Protection for the 2019 fiscal year show more than 80,000 unaccompanied children were either caught crossing the border or deemed inadmissible. HHS officials reported a 57% increase in the number of unaccompanied children referred to the department by June 2019, compared with the same time period the year before.

"They find some stabilization here, at this HHS facility, shelter; care, love, dignity and respect," Weber said during the July interview.

According to records from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, permanent shelters for unaccompanied children were hitting between high 80% and low 90% occupancy rates from November 2018 through June 2019. With those permanent shelters filling up quickly, the federal government was desperate for temporary, influx shelter space.

So HHS found a former "man camp" for oil field workers, called The Studios. A slowdown in the oil boom hit this area two hours south of San Antonio hard, and places like The Studios were desperate for business. 

A notice in the federal register shows the government awarded San Antonio-based BCFS  an up to $300.8-million contract to run the facility through Jan. 31, with an initial $50 million payment for the first 60 days of operation. The Studios were meant to be the model of how the government could use temporary influx shelters to provide quality care. A news release from HHS boasted the facility would not draw on local resources and was even equipped with on-site EMS and fire services, as well as 24-hour security.

However, the shelter was only open from June 30 through July 25, according to HHS officials. Carrizo Springs was set up to house 1,124 children, but only took in 324 before closing down. So what happened?

"They're trying to make judgments about what they think they'll need, and sometimes the actual experience just turns out to be really different than that," said Mark Greenberg with the Migration Policy Institute.

Greenberg was with HHS for seven years under President Barack Obama. The last three years of his tenure were spent as the acting assistant secretary for families and children. He faced similar problems with housing unaccompanied children, and he said the government is in a tough position of guessing how much shelter space it will need based on the moving-target number of unaccompanied children coming across the border.

"Having said all that, it still is a pretty dramatic misestimate to be in this situation," Greenberg said of Carrizo Springs.

CBP and ORR records show the shelter opened during a time when the number of apprehensions on the border was steadily decreasing, and after the government instituted procedures that nearly cut in half the time children were spending in shelters before being released to sponsors. In an email to KPRC 2, HHS officials wrote it has "no current plans to resume operations" at Carrizo Springs. 

"Migration patterns are unpredictable," the email read. "ORR operates a network of approximately 170 facilities/programs in 23 states that are working to unify migrant child with their parent, family member or other suitable sponsor. During an influx, ORR may not have sufficient bed space available within its licensed care provider network to place unaccompanied alien children. In this situation, ORR utilizes Emergency Influx Care Facilities to ensure children are moved out of Border Patrol facilities as expeditiously and safely as possible. It is an invaluable investment when the shelter is needed to prevent children from being backed up in border patrol stations." 

During a recent trip to the facility, KPRC 2 saw that much of the equipment brought in to operate the shelter was still on the property. Some of this equipment included large, climate-controlled tents, portable light towers and privacy fencing installed around the perimeter. We also saw the facility was still guarded and the lights were on in many buildings. A man at the front gate told us he was a sheriff's deputy providing security, and confirmed the facility was empty. He declined to answer whether he was working an on-duty or off-duty assignment. Numerous calls to both the Dimmit County judge and the county's sheriff were not returned.

KPRC 2 also inquired how much of the $300 million contract was paid, since the shelter was open less than a month, and how much is it costing to maintain the facility while no children are present. At first, we were told, "cost data was unavailable." In a follow-up email, HHS officials wrote, "operational cost estimates are unknown since the grant cycle has not ended." 

"As you are aware, HHS is making critical investments in the facility's infrastructure to ensure it remains available and viable for the placement of UAC if necessary," the email further read. "Without going into specifics, these improvements are designed to help reduce the long-term operational costs of Carrizo Springs, and enhance overall site operations."

When KPRC 2 asked HHS officials to verify reports the department leased the facility for five years, we were told, "You are in the ballpark on the length of the Carrizo Springs lease." KPRC 2 did find a June notice posted on the government's Federal Business Opportunities website that read that ORR was seeking to lease property in Carrizo Springs for a full term of five years, a firm term of three years, with an option term of two one-year renewal lease options. According to Dimmit County property records, the property is owned by Stratton Oilfield Systems, which is based in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Company vice president Shannon Stratton referred all of KPRC 2's questions regarding the length and cost of the lease to HHS. KPRC 2 also tried to speak with officials at BCFS, but was told all questions also had to be answered by HHS officials. 

KPRC 2 also reached out to seven congressional leaders, both Texas senators, as well as a state senator and a state representative in that area. The elected officials that did respond to our inquiries said they had no information as to what the long-term plans were for Carrizo Springs. 

Only Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who sits on the House Judiciary Subcommittee for Immigration and Border Security, responded that she believes the facility opened too late.

"There was no need to have all these facilities and all this money spent at this time, when the numbers were going down," said Lee.

Lee said she'll now be asking for HHS to provide an up-to-date census on the number of shelters being operated and the population in each shelter, to help determine whether all the money allocated to Carrizo Springs is still needed.

"As far as I'm concerned, return those dollars to the Treasury," said Lee.

Lee also said she does believe it is the government's responsibility to provide a safe environment for unaccompanied children until they can be placed with a sponsor.