Some Contractors Housing Migrant Children Are Familiar to Trump’s Inner Circle
Posted July 4, 2018 4:12 p.m. EDT
Many of the nonprofits, corporations and religious groups watching over migrant children detained at the southwest border have been in this business for years — and they have a history of political connections, donating millions of dollars to Democrats and Republicans alike.
Now, as new federal policies greatly expand the number of migrants held in detention, it is also becoming clear that some of the players in this billion-dollar industry have particularly strong ties to the Trump administration.
The president’s education secretary provided funding to one of the groups. President Donald Trump’s defense secretary sat on the board of another. Trump’s own inauguration fund collected $500,000 from two private prison companies housing detained migrant families. And some of the contractors employ prominent Republican lobbyists with ties to Trump and his administration, including someone who once lobbied for his family business.
There is no indication that political favors or influence motivated any of the contracts, and the service providers have no apparent ties to the agency awarding most of the contracts, the Department of Health and Human Services. Many of the groups had federal contracts to work with migrant children long before Trump took office.
Yet the administration’s new focus on ending the practice of “catch and release,” under which an ever-larger number of those apprehended at the border are held in detention, has meant that the business of housing and caring for migrant children is booming. A review of regulatory filings, campaign donations and lobbying records reveals a number of important links between people in Trump’s orbit and the groups poised to earn financial rewards from his immigration policies.
Migrant youths detained at the border are housed at more than 100 government-contracted shelters, detention centers and other facilities across the country.
The groups operating them have hauled in more than $1 billion in contracts in recent years to house, transport and watch over migrant children in federal custody. Although some of the contractors have spoken out against the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy on border enforcement and the separation of more than 2,300 migrant children from their families, most have made few public remarks and have instead quietly defended themselves, saying they housed and cared for unauthorized youths during the Obama administration without controversy, and remain dedicated to protecting vulnerable children.
Trump’s recent executive order to scale back the policy and keep migrant families together as much as possible will not necessarily undercut this business. The existing shelters will still house children who cross the border alone, and the president’s order called for migrant families to be detained together, which could spur another round of contracts to expand the number of family detention centers.
Two private prison companies are already operating a pair of family detention centers in Texas. Planned new emergency shelters at military bases are also likely to be operated by contractors, as were similar facilities that opened temporarily on bases as a result of a surge in border crossings during the Obama administration.
The two private prison companies that run family centers, the Geo Group and CoreCivic, are among the politically connected contractors. Each donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund. And the Geo Group’s political action committee, while bipartisan in its giving, allocates many of its biggest donations to Republicans. These include $170,000 to a joint fundraising committee set up between the Republican Party and the Trump campaign; $50,000 to a super PAC supporting the president; and, more recently, donations to Republican Party organizations focusing on the House and Senate.
The Geo Group also hired a lobbyist, Brian Ballard, who lobbied for Trump’s golf courses in Florida before he became president. A recent disclosure form shows that, on behalf of the Geo Group, Ballard’s firm was registered to lobby about “immigration regulation.”
In a statement, the Geo Group said that its family center has “cared exclusively for mothers together with their children since 2014 when it was established by the Obama administration.”
The company said the political contributions “should not be construed as an endorsement of all policies or positions adopted by any individual candidate,” adding that it does “not take a position on nor have we ever advocated for or against criminal justice or immigration policies.”
Steve Owen, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said that the company’s donation to Trump’s inauguration was “consistent with our past practice of civic participation in and support for the inauguration process.” He added that “under long-standing policy, CoreCivic does not draft, lobby for, promote or in any way take a position on proposals, policies or legislation that determine the basis or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention.”
In contrast to deep-pocketed private prison companies, many of the groups winning government contracts to care for migrant children are nonprofits and religious groups. Some of those groups are operating shelters for children separated from their families, as well as running transitional foster care after the children leave the shelters.
Although these nonprofits are not doling out campaign donations, some nonetheless have ties to the Trump administration.
Bethany Christian Services, a social services group that provides foster care to migrant children, has long been backed by the family foundation of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary. Over the years, the group has received more than $419,000 in grants from the foundation, tax records show.
Bethany has said it was “deeply troubled and concerned” at the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” border enforcement policy, and said, “We believe that all children belong with their families.” The group said it works with federal agencies to “reunify unaccompanied and separated children with their families as soon as possible.”
More broadly, Bethany said that it has been working with unaccompanied migrant children for more than 20 years, long before the Trump administration, and rejected any suggestion that its work might be influenced by the support it receives from the DeVos family. “Decades of hard work has provided us with the know-how required to support children and families in crisis,” the organization said in a statement. “While we are extremely grateful to our donors and supporters, the idea that any single individual or organization could cause us to change practices is simply false and diminishes the incredible work of all those firmly focused on the well-being of displaced children.”
DeVos’ personal spokesman, Greg McNeilly, said that the family was proud to invest in Bethany’s work, and that the organization had a “great reputation.”
Another member of the Trump Cabinet, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, once sat on the board of General Dynamics, which over the last 18 years has received millions of dollars in contracts from the Department of Health and Human Services office that works with migrant children. The company does not operate or construct any migrant shelters, but instead offers training and technical assistance to the shelters and provides other administrative services to the government. The company, which has a number of government contracts unrelated to the migrant children program, said it has “no role in the separation of children and families.”
Mattis, who resigned from the board upon entering the Trump administration in early 2017, is not the company’s only connection to the president. A General Dynamics employee served on Trump’s transition team, and the company’s chief executive, Phebe Novakovic, attended a meeting at the White House last year with Trump and other corporate executives. On two occasions, Novakovic has praised Trump’s trade actions.
General Dynamics, which has registered to lobby on the issue of “border security,” also operates a PAC that has donated to members of both parties, including more than $1.1 million to Republican candidates and causes during this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The company, which says its PAC “supports Congressional candidates who support a strong national defense, regardless of their party affiliation,” made one of those donations to the congressional campaign of Greg Pence, the brother of Vice President Mike Pence. BCFS — a nonprofit group that operates a number of shelters housing migrant children, including a tent city outside of El Paso that has been the focus of protests — counts a former Republican congressman, Henry Bonilla, as a longtime board member and a lobbyist. In December 2016, Bonilla met with Trump, then the president-elect, to discuss joining his Cabinet as agriculture secretary. BCFS has also long retained Ray Sullivan, a lobbyist and onetime chief of staff to Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who is now Trump’s energy secretary.
In a statement, BCFS said its “children sheltering mission has spanned Democratic and Republican Administrations, and comes with proper government procurement and oversight built in.” Bonilla and Sullivan, BCFS said, help the group “respond to community needs and help inform federal, state and local officials about the BCFS System’s capabilities and work.”