Contractors housing migrant children are close to Trump’s inner circle
NEW YORK — Many of the nonprofits, corporations, and religious groups watching over migrant children detained at the southwest border have been in this business for years — and they have a history of political connections, donating millions of dollars to Democrats and Republicans alike.
Now, as new federal policies greatly expand the number of migrants held in detention, it is also becoming clear that some of the players in this billion-dollar industry have particularly strong ties to the Trump administration.
The president’s education secretary provided funding to one of the groups. President Trump’s defense secretary sat on the board of another.
Trump’s own inauguration fund collected $500,000 from two private prison companies housing detained migrant families. And some of the contractors employ prominent Republican lobbyists with ties to Trump and his administration, including someone who once lobbied for his family business.
There is no indication that political favors or influence motivated any of the contracts, and the service providers have no apparent ties to the agency awarding most of the contracts, the Department of Health and Human Services.
Many of the groups had federal contracts to work with migrant children long before Trump took office.
Yet the administration’s new focus on ending the practice of “catch and release,” under which an ever-larger number of those apprehended at the border are held in detention, has meant that the business of housing and caring for migrant children is booming.
A review of regulatory filings, campaign donations, and lobbying records reveals a number of important links between people in Trump’s orbit and the groups poised to earn financial rewards from his immigration policies.
Trump’s “zero tolerance’’ policy on border enforcement, which led to the separation of more than 2,300 migrant children from their families, prompted widespread protests Saturday in every state.
On Wednesday, a person climbed the Statue of Liberty’s base shortly after the arrests of several people who hung a banner from the pedestal calling for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Associated Press reported.
The climber sat at the bottom of the statue’s robes Wednesday until police arrived.
National Park Service spokesman Jerry Willis said at least six people were taken into custody for a banner that read ‘‘Abolish I.C.E.,’’ referring to part of the Department of Homeland Security. Federal regulations prohibit hanging banners from the monument.
The group behind the banner, Rise and Resist, said the climber wasn’t connected to the earlier demonstration.
Migrant youths detained at the border are housed at more than 100 government-contracted shelters, detention centers, and other facilities across the country.
The groups operating them have hauled in more than $1 billion in contracts in recent years to house, transport, and watch over migrant children in federal custody.
Although some of the contractors have spoken out against the zero-tolerance policy on border enforcement and the separation of families, most have made few public remarks.
They have instead quietly defended themselves, saying they housed and cared for unauthorized youths during the Obama administration without controversy and remain dedicated to protecting vulnerable children.
Trump’s recent executive order to scale back the policy and keep migrant families together as much as possible will not necessarily undercut this business.
The existing shelters will still house children who cross the border alone, and the president’s order called for migrant families to be detained together, which could spur another round of contracts to expand the number of family detention centers.
Two private prison companies are already operating a pair of family detention centers in Texas. Planned new emergency shelters at military bases are also likely to be operated by contractors, as were similar facilities that opened temporarily on bases as a result of a surge in border crossings during the Obama administration.
The two private prison companies that run family centers, the Geo Group and CoreCivic, are among the politically connected contractors. Each donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund. And the Geo Group’s political action committee, while bipartisan in its giving, allocates many of its biggest donations to Republicans.
These include $170,000 to a joint fund-raising committee set up between the Republican Party and the Trump campaign; $50,000 to a super PAC supporting the president; and, more recently, donations to Republican Party organizations focusing on the House and Senate.
The Geo Group also hired a lobbyist, Brian Ballard, who lobbied for Trump’s golf courses in Florida before he became president. A recent disclosure form shows that, on behalf of the Geo Group, Ballard’s firm was registered to lobby about “immigration regulation.”
In a statement, the Geo Group said that its family center has “cared exclusively for mothers together with their children since 2014 when it was established by the Obama administration.”
The company said the political contributions “should not be construed as an endorsement of all policies or positions adopted by any individual candidate,” adding that it does “not take a position on nor have we ever advocated for or against criminal justice or immigration policies.”
Steve Owen, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said that the company does not draft, lobby for, promote, or in any way take a position on proposals, policies, or legislation that determine the basis or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention.
Many of the groups winning government contracts to care for migrant children are nonprofits and religious groups.
Although these nonprofits are not doling out campaign donations, some have ties to the Trump administration. Bethany Christian Services, a social services group, has long been backed by the family foundation of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary.