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Government Contractor Acknowledges Migrant Children Were Held Overnight in Vacant Office Building

The office building where immigrant children were detained in June is on a main street just outside downtown Phoenix. Defense contractor MVM Inc., which leased the building in March, calls it a “temporary holding place” for children being flown out of the Phoenix airport to other locations. (Aura Bogado / Reveal)

The defense contractor that initially stated it held migrant children in a vacant Phoenix office building only for short periods of time while awaiting flights acknowledged Wednesday that it sometimes kept them there overnight.

It was, MVM Inc. spokesman Joseph Arabit said in an emailed response, “a regrettable exception” to the company’s policy to find a hotel instead, if needed, when there are delays in transporting children in custody to various placements designated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. It also appears to violate the company’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We work diligently … to minimize the time that these children are in transit,” Arabit said. “The process is a complex logistical undertaking with many things outside of MVM’s control, complicated by a recent spike in the number of children and families MVM was asked to escort, a lag in flight availability, and unforeseen placement changes.

“While far from the norm, this led to some recent unavoidable delays when the period before a flight extended beyond just several hours,” he said, adding that tighter controls, a full review and “appropriate actions” to prevent this from happening in the future are underway.

The use of the office came to light after a neighbor began videotaping the children’s arrivals, concerned that they might be being trafficked or at a minimum kept in inhospitable conditions.

When Reveal got to the site last week, the children were gone, leaving behind shreds of evidence that they had been there more than a few hours: a medication schedule for one child, an inflatable mattress, a box marked “baby shampoo.” The office has only a few bathrooms and no kitchen facilities – in fact, under its lease, cooking is not allowed. It is not licensed by the state as a child care facility.

Next door neighbor Lianna Dunlap reacted to the news that her hunch was at least partially correct, calling it horrifying and criticizing MVM for trying to “hide it from us.”

“It just shows that they’re not really following any rules or protocols,” she said. “Those poor children.”

MVM, a private firm with ties to the CIA, has contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement worth up to $248 million to transport children. The company leased the nondescript one-level office building in March, shortly before the Trump administration’s push to separate children from their parents at the border began.

The company’s admission came after Reveal began to confirm details of who the children held in the office were and, in the process, learned that at least two were in MVM’s custody for more than 24 hours.

One arrived to the United States on her own. One was split from her parents. Some are toddlers. Others are in their late teens. And at least one is pregnant. All had made their way, alone or with friends and family, from Latin America to the United States in late spring.

And all found themselves in the unmarked office building over the course of several weeks in May and June.

One of them also ran away—and remains missing.

Phoenix Police Sgt. Vincent C. Lewis told Reveal that officers made a missing persons service call to that office on the morning of May 27, responding to an MVM staffer’s request.

“The teen who fled from them was described as approximately 16 years old in the call, but the police report lists him as 17,” Lewis said. The teenager, originally from Honduras, was first in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol in Tucson before he was handed over to ICE. He was being transported by MVM to his destination and was at the Phoenix office for roughly 40 minutes, Lewis said, when he took off. He hadn’t been at the office alone.

“Although officers made no observations of any children during the contact with staff, the report states that the juvenile would have been one of approximately 90 juveniles passing through this transfer facility on their way to the airport,” Lewis said.

By early June, neighbors say they began seeing children, sometimes more than a dozen at a time, quietly ushered into the MVM office. On June 22, they saw white vans pull up and take a large group away.

The videos and eye-witness accounts, along with new records obtained by Reveal, indicate that more than 200 children made their way through the vacant office building over the course of a month. The number may be much higher.

ICE previously told Reveal that, under its contract, MVM is “authorized to use their office spaces as waiting areas for minors awaiting same-day transportation” to the custody of the agency charged with caring for unaccompanied children. MVM also told Reveal last week that the Phoenix office “is not a shelter or a child care facility. … It’s a temporary holding place” for minors being flown out of the local airport and other locations.

“These offices are not overnight housing facilities, per the contract with ICE,” ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said last week.

After obtaining a database of children’s names, identification numbers and dates of arrival in Phoenix that was originally shared among MVM employees, Reveal compared some of those names to federal records that indicate the date a child was admitted into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

In one case, a teenager from Honduras who made her way to the border without her parents was listed as having arrived at the Phoenix office the morning of June 3. But the 16-year-old wasn’t admitted into a shelter until two days later, on June 5. Records also indicate that teenager is pregnant.

In another case, a 15-year-old from Guatemala appears to have arrived at the MVM office on June 3 but was not admitted into a shelter until the following day. Records reviewed by Reveal suggest she had been taken from her parents at the border.

That girl currently is listed at a shelter in Texas. A man she entered the United States with, who may be her father, is currently detained in California. And, until Tuesday, a woman the teenager entered the U.S. with, likely her mother, was in an immigrant detention center in Colorado.

The woman’s name disappeared from detention records Wednesday morning. It’s unclear whether that means she was released into the United States or deported.

ICE spokeswoman Elzea requested complete details of any cases in which children appear to have spent the night at the MVM office – saying she would be happy to look into it if Reveal could provide full names and other unique identifiers. Reveal provided details about one girl. Elzea said ICE would look into the case.

“I don’t have a specific timeline for a response, but will keep you posted,” she wrote in an email.

Reveal reached out to Elzea again after MVM confirmed it had kept children there overnight. She said ICE was “looking into” it.

When contacted by Reveal earlier Wednesday with details about one case, Arabit—who runs MVM’s homeland security and public safety division—said he’d need more time to respond. Asked whether he could answer one question, “Did children ever spend the night at the MVM office in Phoenix?” Arabit said he would send a statement.

At 4:11 p.m. he emailed: “Thank you for your patience, the answer to your question is yes. Please see statement below.”

Citing “unavoidable delays,” the four-paragraph statement included the following:

“On those occasions and because MVM does not operate shelters, it is our policy to accompany the children affected to an appropriate accommodation such as a local hotel. When we identified several instances in which our policy was not followed, MVM instituted tighter controls and gave employees additional instruction to prevent these regrettable exceptions from happening again. “Since 2014, we have escorted 130,000 individuals and have always committed to the best interest of each individual child and family while they are in our care, adhering to the highest professional standards. In light of this recent experience, we have initiated a Program review and will take appropriate actions based on our findings.”

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.

Aura Bogado / Reveal

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