Faced with a torrent of unaccompanied children crossing the border from Mexico, the U.S. government has hired private companies to carry out construction and management contracts for housing that critics claim may not be able to adequately care for the minors.

Some of the companies have responded to natural disasters and more recently developed quarantine centers at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Others have worked with U.S. border officials in recent years to set up tented camps for migrants.

The new shelters are needed because the government is in government custody with more than 22,000 children and insufficient labor is available to pass them on to family members.

In its rush to deploy new facilities, the Department of Health and Human Services placed the largest contracts – valued at more than $ 2 billion – with two companies and a non-profit organization with no bidding process and has freed vendors from the manpower requirements that To have state-licensed children’s facilities must meet records according to HHS and federal spending.

Two of the new large facilities have been closed in the past few weeks. HHS did not explain why they closed so suddenly, but said in a statement that they were for temporary use only and that children had been sent to various temporary locations or reunited with their families.

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Children told lawyers who visited some sites that they had not met with case managers charged with bringing them back together with family members. HHS has denied all access to news media once children have been taken to facilities, citing the coronavirus pandemic and privacy restrictions.

“When we spend hundreds of millions of dollars, the government needs to make sure that the services are being provided and that we are meeting the needs of the children,” said Scott H. Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a private monitoring group.

In a statement, HHS said the new centers for child migrants “are in line with best practices / standards in emergency or other humanitarian situations”. In addition to the construction of new shelters, it was said that “aggressive measures” were being taken to speed up the release of the children, for example by taking them on flights with their families. On Monday, the Biden administration announced that four families separated on the Mexican border during Donald Trump’s presidency will be reunited in the United States this week. Homeland Security Minister Alejandro Mayorkas described reunification as “just the beginning” of a broader effort.

Sarah DeYoung, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies evacuation shelters, fears that many locations have “very institutional settings” that are not ideal for children.

“Just because these have been selected in the past doesn’t mean they are doing well in terms of child wellbeing,” DeYoung said. “It is important that there is still an external assessment … including public health experts and those with pediatric expertise.”

As of February, the government has awarded approximately $ 3 billion worth of unaccompanied child placement contracts, of which more than $ 2 billion has been awarded to three beneficiaries: Deployed Resources LLC, based in Rome, New York; Family Endeavours Inc. of San Antonio; and Rapid Deployment Inc. based in Mobile, Alabama.

Deployed Resources has been selected to operate a 1,500-bed emergency shelter in Donna, Texas, for which up to $ 719 million could be raised. The company previously built tent courts for a program under Trump that saw asylum seekers in Mexico wait for immigration court hearings. It has also built other tented detention centers on the border, temporary locations for people displaced by hurricanes, and base camps for the U.S. military.

Family Endeavors Inc., a nonprofit disaster relief group, could receive up to $ 580 million to operate an emergency room in Pecos, Texas. The organization previously received $ 87 million from US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to provide hotel rooms and other services to migrant families who cannot be evicted under a border health rule.

The potential amount of the final contract is more than 13 times the total sales of the organization in 2018, as indicated on the latest available annual tax returns.

Jon Allman, CEO of Endeavors, said the group has decades of experience working with “marginalized populations” and has been serving migrant communities since 2012, employing up to 3,000 people if necessary.

“Endeavor is proud to partner with the federal government during this daunting humanitarian crisis,” Allman said in an email. “Many non-profit organizations were asked but rejected.”

Earlier this year, the group hired Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, a former ICE official who most recently served on President Joe Biden’s transition team. He was first hired as a consultant to Endeavors in early 2020, Allman said. He said Lorenzen-Strasse has expertise in the well-being of children and families with a migrant background.

Rapid Deployment Inc. has now received two major contracts totaling $ 614 million to manage a facility in Fort Bliss, Texas, which turns out to be the largest of its kind and could expand to 10,000 beds according to government documents.

The government has been criticized in the past for handling previous large-scale housing-related contracts during the Trump administration.

An audit published by the HHS inspector general’s office in December found the agency mismanaged a no-bid deal placed by a company to operate a large children’s facility in Homestead, Florida in 2019.

HHS paid $ 67 million to Comprehensive Health Services for the three months the facility operated – excluding children – and paid around $ 2.6 million in total, according to the report, noting that the government was paying the costs could have decreased if there had been a tendering process.

HHS Comprehensive Health Services has not issued any new contracts under the administration of Biden. Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas that at one point was the nation’s largest provider of facilities for immigrant children, has won a $ 79 million contract. The company came under fire for taking in young children during the Trump administration’s large-scale family separations.

On another audit last year, the Inspector General found that the Southwest Key Programs were failing to establish a proper accounting system and charged the government more than $ 13 million. The audit found that Southwest Key “disagreed with all but one of our findings, or disagreed with them in part, and outlined the actions and plans to correct the findings.”

Under the current contract, the company will provide childcare and case management at one of the new facilities in Midland, Texas.

“We know the government is dealing with large numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants,” said Steve Rosenbaum, an attorney for La Raza Centro Legal, who has represented immigrant children in a longstanding legal battle over custody of immigrant youth. Good faith tries to do what is right, but it is almost an impossible task. “