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ICE Gave $185 Million Deal to Defense Contractor Under Investigation for Housing Kids in Office

Some of the children held in the office buildings were separated from their families under the “zero tolerance” policy.

Some children held overnight in office buildings -- which had no kitchens, showers or yards -- were among those separated from their families under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.

A private company in charge of transporting families separated at the US border earned a lucrative new contract from ICE while it was under investigation for housing immigrant children in vacant office buildings.

Records show that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement gave MVM Inc. a new contract worth nearly $200 million on July 20, just days after Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the defense contractor held children overnight in two vacant office buildings in Phoenix.

Some children held overnight in the buildings – which had no kitchens, showers or yards – were among those separated from their families under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.

On July 11, ICE said its contract with MVM “does not allow for children to be in these facilities more than 24 hours.” The agency said it would be reviewing MVM.

But nine days later, it awarded MVM a new five-year contract worth $185 million for translation and interpretation services, records show.

ICE previously had given the contract to MVM two other times, but both times the contract was voided because of problems. In August 2017, when the company was first awarded, three other contractors protested, saying MVM could not fulfill the needed interpretation services. ICE modified the contract and awarded it to MVM again in June 2018. However, after another protest from competitors, ICE soon rescinded the contract because it gave MVM $10 million more than was called for in the bid.

The third time MVM received the contract came after ICE had launched its investigation into MVM’s office buildings. That bid is also under protest from another vendor that lost out.

In early July, Reveal discovered that MVM detained immigrant children in two office buildings in Phoenix, in possible violation of the company’s own policies. Neither office building was listed among shelters that are licensed to operate through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement or on Arizona’s child care licensing website.

According to ICE, its transportation contract with MVM did not allow the private company to hold children overnight but allowed MVM to use its offices as “waiting areas” for children awaiting same-day transport.

Following Reveal’s investigation, MVM admitted to holding children overnight in at least one of the vacant offices.

In an email dated July 16, Jennifer Elzea, a spokeswoman for ICE, said the agency was “looking into whether anything occurred that was outside the realm of our contract” with MVM. Neither she nor the contractor would provide copies of the contract. ICE has denied Reveal’s Freedom of Information Act request to view the contracts.

In a follow-up email July 26, Elzea did not respond to questions regarding the most recent translation and interpretation contract with MVM, stating, “You are welcome to FOIA for any contract documents.” She did not respond to subsequent emails.

The Arizona Department of Health Services actively regulates other facilities in the state that are currently licensed. However, a July 12 letterfrom the department said it “does not have the authority or influence to compel the federal government to change their practices or initiate an investigation.”

In a Sept. 17 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen and ICE Acting Director Ron Vitiello, US Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., requested “a thorough investigation of the treatment of unaccompanied children in MVM custody and suspend their contract pending the outcome of the investigation.”

MVM, founded by three former US Secret Service agents in the late 1970s, has supplied guards to CIA facilities in Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay Migrant Operations Center and provided protection to former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. One of its vice presidents is a former CIA special agent and former acting director of the US Marshals Service.

Records indicate that since 2014, the Virginia-based company has received contracts with ICE worth up to $248 million to transport children. Most recently, MVM has become the main transportation contractor under the federal government’s zero-tolerance border policy.

Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley, a Democrat, questioned the state’s lack of action in clamping down on MVM’s continuing business with ICE.

“Why aren’t you shutting them down? Children are at risk,” he said.