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Grijalva calls for review of Texas facility for migrant kids after whistleblower complaint

Complaint alleges 'dirty tents,' lack of clean underwear, and 'malfeasance' at site holding nearly 800 children

Following a whistleblower complaint over the treatment of migrant children at facility at Fort Bliss in Texas, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva called for a congressional investigation into what he called "horrific" and "inhumane practices" at the facility. 

On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Project, on behalf of two federal employees, filed a formal complaint with Congress, alleging "gross mismanagement" by a private company known as Servpro, which was contracted to manage the facility for unaccompanied minors — children traveling to the U.S. border without parents or adult guardians. 

“These allegations are horrific and have no place in our asylum system," Grijalva said. "Children do not belong in detention, and I’ve long advocated for the closure of these types of facilities."

"Those fleeing violence from their home countries should be met with compassion, dignity, and quality care that recognizes their hardships," Grijalva said. "The Biden administration must pursue community-based alternatives to detention that put the welfare of children first. We need an independent investigation to determine exactly what’s going on and end these inhumane practices one and for all."

The two employees,  Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, are "career civil servants," GAP said, who took voluntary positions with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help care for unaccompanied migrant children in what they called an "enormous, undivided tent" at the military base near El Paso, Texas, from May 12 to June 2, 2021. 

During that time, the group said, the two employees were "actively discouraged" from reporting concerns about what they witnessed at Fort Bliss, but because they believed tent conditions were placing children at risk, they "regularly and persistently" contacted HHS' own watchdog. "The conditions they witnesses caused physical,  mental and emotional harm affecting dozens of children," the group wrote. However, the management of the tent-like facility "ignored their concerns," the group wrote, and during their time at Fort Bliss "no remedial action was taken." 

Beginning in January 2021, the Border Patrol began taking into custody hundreds of unaccompanied children who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border without parents or guardians and sought asylum. While the agency used Title 42 — a CDC order that allowed the agency to rapidly deport people back to Mexico because of the coronavirus pandemic — the agency was blocked from returning children by a federal  judge in November, and Mexico further refused to take back children who were not from Mexico. This put pressure on Border Patrol, and by March 30, the agency had almost 5,800 children in custody at BP stations. 

In response, the Biden administration rapidly set-up dozens what HHS calls "emergency intake sites," to allow that agency to keep the children in its care until parents or guardians can be found in the United States.

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During the first four months of 2021, the number of unaccompanied children in HHS care grew from 4,020 on January 31 to 20,339 on April 30, 2021. The most recent data from HHS shows that nearly 14,500 children are in its care, and about 506 children were encountered by Border Patrol agents on July 1, and nearly 1,100 children were in Border Patrol's custody that day. 

Meanwhile, as the number of children increased, Border Patrol set up "soft-sided facilities," essentially large tents with air-conditioning and plumbing, including one in Yuma and another in Tucson in late April. 

Servpro, the contractor for the HHS, specializes in cleanup after water, fire and storm disasters, the group said, adding that Servepro had no record of having handled a contract related to child welfare before it took on the care of nearly 5,000 children housed at the Fort Bliss facility in May. At the end of June, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters that the facility had around 790 children, but that while other sites are being phased out, the Fort Bliss site would remain open. 

Servpro calls itself a "national leader of fire, water, mold and other speciality cleanup and restoration services," and many of the company's staff wore shirts with the corporate logo, which includes the phrase, "As if it never happened," the group said. 

Elkin and Mulaire complained the contractors, who told them that they were not permitted to interact with children unless a children specifically approached them, and that even when children did approach the contractors, they "were often of little help," the group wrote. 

This began with the set-up of the dormitory-style rooms, where the two federal employees argued that the closely-spaced bunks beds made it difficult to watch the children. 

"A child in distress risked being overlooked by adults, especially if hidden from view on a lower bunk," GAP wrote. "And these children were and are at risk. They were separated from their parents and family, their community and culture. They are unmoored from most everything that provides a sense of safety and security."

"At orientation, the detailees were told that the children have experienced dire conditions in their home countries — often involving one or more traumas — that prompted them to flee in the first place," the group wrote. "The long and dangerous journey from their homes in Central America was another likely source of trauma for many, ranging from being victims of sexual assault or other crimes to witnessing others die along the journey." 

Elkin and Mulaire  also complained that the tents were dirty and often smelled like a locker room, while children's sheets went unchanged, and the entire facility was infiltrated by dust from windstorms. They also complained that the order of sewage from the portable restrooms was "not uncommon." 

Additionally, children said they were not given clean underwear and socks, the group said. 

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All told, the group said that the were multiple issues of malfeasance, including hostility, indifference, and resistance to care at the Servpro-managed facility. 

"In sum, the time our clients spent at Fort Bliss was alarming," wrote David Z. Seide and Dana L. Gold with GAP. "Each day seemed to bring new examples of deficiencies in the care of the children and resulting risks to their health. Instances of gross mismanagement of the site were pervasive. Having witnessed these things, as well as the despair of children who felt (often accurately) that they were being ignored or forgotten, our clients felt the need to speak out, yet were met with non-responsiveness at best and unlawful deterrence at worst." 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A space for unaccompanied minors to sleep at a 'soft-sided facility' or tent-like structure in Tucson.

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