House Democrats seek documents from for-profit companies detaining migrants

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is asking for in-depth business information from companies managing detention centers at the southern border.
Image: House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on April 2, 2019.
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on April 2, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell

WASHINGTON — A House panel is escalating its investigation into the Trump administration's handling of migrants at the southern border by demanding that companies managing detention centers there hand over communications and documents pertaining to those businesses, according to letters obtained by NBC News.

The letters, sent Wednesday by Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, are asking for an accounting of the hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts such companies have received under the Trump administration amid troubling reports of poor treatment of migrants.

The CEOs of CoreCivic, GEO Group and Comprehensive Health Services, as well as the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Matthew Albence, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, were given a deadline of July 24 to comply with the requests.

The document request is vast, dating back to President Donald Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, and encompasses information regarding the government contracts and subcontracts, communications with administration officials, profit statements and even executive salaries.

Multiple media reports of poor treatment of migrants, including jail-like conditions and sexual assault allegations, have plagued detention centers operating under the Customs and Border Protection, ICE and the HHS.

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In multiple reports, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General has also detailed problematic conditions for migrants in ICE facilities since 2017. (These letters do not include information of CBP processing, which are overcrowded and overrun as migrants are being held for much longer than the 72-hour limit.)

“The Committee is investigating the Trump Administration’s rapidly increasing use of for-profit contractors to detain tens of thousands of immigrants, including a troubling series of reports of health and safety violations and the dramatically escalating and seemingly unchecked cost to U.S. taxpayers for these contracts,” said the letters, written by Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee Chair Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

CoreCivic and GEO Group operate detention facilities for ICE, where the numbers of migrants being held have increased from an average of 38,000 per day in 2017 to 52,000 in June of 2019, according to ICE officials.

The letter to CoreCivic also noted that the company’s chief financial officer told shareholders that 2019 has “exceeded expectations” due, in large part, to its detention facilities.

CoreCivic told NBC News it is reviewing the letter, but it notes that “we have not, do not and will not” hold unaccompanied children at its facilities.

“It’s critical to understand that CoreCivic has a 35-year track record of working with both Democratic and Republican administrations to help solve the very types of crises we are now seeing on our southern border,” Amanda Gilchrest, director of public affairs, said.

GEO Group did not respond to a request for comment but CEO George Zoley has told shareholders that the first quarter of 2019 was “financially and operationally the best in our history," according to Democrats.

The third company, Comprehensive Health Services, runs the Homestead Shelter in Florida. Former DHS Secretary and Trump chief of staff John Kelly now sits on the board of its parent company, Caliburn International.

The letter notes that the number of children held by the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Homestead site has increased dramatically, especially after the administration separated children from their families. The letter also says that the number of beds for children increased 140 percent in four months to 3,200. The committee wants all communication with Kelly since April 1, 2016.

Comprehensive Health Services has not responded to a request for comment. The HHS confirmed Thursday that Azar has received the letter. "All congressional inquiries are taken seriously by the department and we will respond as appropriate in a timely fashion," department spokesperson Caitlin Oakley said.

The committee is requesting documents pertaining to contracts and subcontracts with state, local and federal governments; the average number of people kept at each facility every day and each month; and the cost and profit revenue of each contract. The committee also wants the compensation of executives and board members at the companies and parent companies.

It is also asking for documents pertaining to compliance, including how it ensures compliance with DHS standards, and the names and titles of employees who are tasked with upholding the standards.

They also want all communications with ICE, DHS and HHS leadership, the White House and political appointees as well as a record of all documentation of violations at the detention centers and how they were remediated.