CARRIZO SPRINGS, Tex. — As he stood before reporters in a newly opened emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, the chief executive of the contracting firm that could be paid up to $300 million to run the facility was far from thrilled about the task before him.
“I hate this mission,” Kevin Dinnin, head of the San Antonio-based nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, said on Wednesday in this remote Texas town. “The only reason we do it is to keep the kids out of the Border Patrol jail cells.”
The Carrizo Springs shelter opened on June 30 to help alleviate cramped conditions in Border Patrol processing facilities, where people were recently seen sleeping head to toe on concrete floors, often lacking access to hot meals, showers and proper medical care. The shelter will be able to hold up to 1,300 teenage children, though it currently has just over 200.
Although reporters who visited the shelter Wednesday saw the children only briefly during a tightly controlled tour, conditions in Carrizo Springs appear far better than those in the Border Patrol stations. Children could be seen playing soccer outside, attending classes in groups of around 30 to 40 and making phone calls to their families.
The facility is a scattering of dormitory buildings, trailers and tents that were once housing for oil field workers. Children’s artwork — drawings of cartoon characters, flags and paper flowers — decorated the walls of their sleeping quarters. Lighted soccer fields allow children to play at night and avoid the harsh summer heat.
The children who come to Carrizo Springs are also meant to be those with only the most basic needs, and who are expected to be released soon to adults in the United States. Children sleep on bunk beds in carpeted rooms, with round-the-clock adult supervision. Dormitories are organized into groups of 12, with one shower and toilet, as well as a kitchen. There are 749 people on staff at the shelter, including those who care directly for children and emergency personnel. That’s “more staff than we need right now,” Dinnin said, adding that his goal is to make sure no children are there for more than 30 days.
Mark Weber, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of caring for unaccompanied migrant children, said the shelter ordered nearly 200 pizzas for a recent 4th of July party. The two biggest complaints from kids, he claimed, were “not enough pizza” and “not enough soccer time.”
Still, Dinnin and Weber agree that such “surge shelters” — which have opened periodically over the past several years during spikes in migrant crossings — are not an ideal place for children. Because of their temporary nature, federal officials have exempted the facilities from standard child-care licensing requirements. Although the facilities are officially considered shelters and not detention centers, they are fenced in and nearly impossible to leave. Two levels of fencing, with barbed wire atop one level, surround the Carrizo Springs center.
Surge shelters are also expensive to run because of their large size and how quickly they need to be able to come online. Costs at Carrizo Springs, which was set up in less than a month, are around $750-800 per child per day, Dinnin said. BCFS will be paid $50 million for its work in just the first few weeks, and Dinnin earns an annual salary of nearly $500,000, according to the most recently available tax filings from the nonprofit organization.
The only other surge shelter in operation, in Homestead, Fla., is run by the for-profit company Comprehensive Health Services. The company was recently awarded a contract worth up to $341 million to continue operating the facility, which recently housed more than 2,000 children. Several Democratic presidential candidates have criticized conditions at Homestead. The company that operates it has invited members of Congress to tour the facility and has said the well-being of the children in its care is its “primary concern.”
The massive “tent city” children’s shelter in Tornillo, which was run by BCFS until it closed in January, also came under scrutiny. Government inspectors discovered last fall that BCFS hadn’t done FBI background checks, or required child protective services checks, on the staff working at Tornillo. The inspectors also reported that the number of clinicians at Tornillo — staff who provide services such as mental health assessments and counseling — was “dangerously low.” Both problems were promptly fixed, the nonprofit group says.
Dinnin had publicly complained for months about running Tornillo, which opened last June with just 400 beds but later swelled to 3,800. He told reporters on Wednesday that his criticism probably helped lead to Tornillo’s closure, and that he only agreed to run the Carrizo Springs facility on the condition that the government offer the public regular tours of the shelter and take other steps to be more transparent.
The shelter, though, may be less needed than it was a few weeks ago. Migrant crossings have dropped dramatically in the past month, and in recent days more unaccompanied children have been leaving the care of the federal government than have been entering it. No children are spending more than 72 hours in Border Patrol processing facilities, Weber said; in May, more than 1,000 children were in such a situation.
Dinnin suggested as much to reporters. “They needed these beds, clearly, in May,” he said, adding that the opening of the shelter was “too much, too late.”
During the tour of the facility, Weber deflected numerous questions about why it did not open earlier. He insisted that even in May, the shelters open at the time had plenty of capacity to take on more children. As of June 25, the agency had nearly 700 open beds in its general and emergency shelters, according to data obtained by The Washington Post.
Asked several times why so many children were stuck in Border Patrol processing facilities, Weber referred reporters to the Department of Homeland Security, which runs the Border Patrol stations.
“You’d have to ask DHS,” he said. He added that, “we’ll wait for the next OIG report,” referring to that agency’s Office of Inspector General.
DHS did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.