US awards huge shelter contracts amid child migrant increase

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FILE - In this March 24, 2021, file photo, Fatima Nayeli, 13, center, talks to journalists as she holds the hand of her sister, Cynthia Stacy, 8, and Davidson Jair, 7, after they were smuggled on an inflatable raft across the Rio Grande river in Roma, Texas. All three children traveled from El Salvador in the hope of reaching relatives living in the U.S. Confronted with a stream of unaccompanied children crossing the border from Mexico, the U.S. government has awarded shelter-construction and management contracts to private companies that critics say may not be equipped to adequately care for the minors. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, File)

Confronted with a stream of unaccompanied children crossing the border from Mexico, the U.S. government has awarded shelter-construction and management contracts to private companies that critics say may not be equipped to adequately care for the minors.

Some of the companies have responded to natural disasters and more recently developed quarantine centers at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Others have worked with U.S. border officials over the past few years to set up tented holding areas for migrants.

The new shelters are needed as the government finds itself with more than 22,000 children in government custody and insufficient workers to help release them to family members.

In its haste to provide new facilities, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded the largest contracts — worth more than $2 billion — to two companies and a nonprofit without a bidding process and has exempted providers from the staffing requirements that state-licensed child facilities must meet, according to HHS and federal spending records.

Two of the new large facilities have been shuttered in the past few weeks. HHS did not explain why they were closed so suddenly, but said in a statement that they were only for temporary use and that children had been sent to different temporary sites or reunited with their families.

Children told attorneys who visited some sites they had not met with case managers, who are tasked with reuniting them with family members. HHS has refused all access to news media once children are brought into facilities, citing the coronavirus pandemic and privacy restrictions.

“When we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the government has to ensure that the services are being provided and that we are meeting the needs of the children,” said Scott H. Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a private watchdog group.

In a statement, HHS said the new child-migrant centers are “consistent with best practices/standards in emergency response or other humanitarian situations.” It said that in addition to building new shelters, it also has taken “aggressive actions” to speed up the children’s release, such as by putting them on flights to be with their families. On Monday, the Biden administration said four families that were separated at the Mexico border during Donald Trump’s presidency will be reunited in the United States this week. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called the reunifications “just the beginning” of a broader effort.