Following a shocking NBC News report last week that a number of unaccompanied migrant children were stranded in vans overnight—one child reportedly for several days—while waiting to be transferred to sponsors, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra has pledged an investigation into the allegations, The Washington Post reports.
“This is completely unacceptable,” Becerra said in the report. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which shelters children who come to the U.S. without a parent and works to connect them to sponsors, is operated by HHS. “We’re quickly investigating this to get to the bottom of what happened, and we’ll work to make sure this never happens again,” he continued. “The safety and well-being of the children is our priority.”
NBC News had initially reported last week that a number of children who were being transferred from ORR custody to a sponsor had been kept waiting overnight in Texas in buses rented by private defense contractor MVM Inc., with no access to beds or showers. (They do have toilets.) One child, his sponsors told NBC News, had been kept on the bus from Saturday to Wednesday with no word from ORR about his arrival from Dallas to Seattle. NBC News reported that within a day of its initial report, officials said 15-year-old Joel would be flown to Washington.
“He was crying,” his uncle Elvin said in the report. “He didn’t feel good because he says he has been there for a long time. And I was surprised when he said, ‘We are still here.’ For me, that was like a bucket of cold water. I was wondering what was happening and no one was giving us information until he got a phone from one of the kids.”
This is not the first time migrant children have been left stranded in buses overnight by the federal government. The previous administration kept children waiting to be reunited with their parents after being separated under the “zero tolerance” policy on buses for as long as 39 hours. That also happened under another private contractor tasked with transportation services, BCFS Heath and Human Services.
The Daily Beast reported that the Biden administration signed a new contract with MVM Inc. in March for “staffing and resources necessary to arrange travel and escort for [unaccompanied children] in [Office of Refugee Resettlement] custody,” despite a Reveal investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting finding that it had also left separated children stranded in a Phoenix, Arizona, office building in 2018. “It is not listed among shelters operating through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement or on the state child care licensing website,” Reveal reported at the time.
The previous administration also used MVM Inc. to last year hold children at a number of hotels in Texas before quickly deporting them under that administration’s still ongoing Title 42 policy. That the Biden administration was taking significant steps to speed up the release of children from ORR custody to sponsors was welcomed by advocates, but news that the Biden administration had also contracted with MVM Inc. to apparently assist in that process came to their horror.
NBC News reports that an MVM Inc. spokesperson called the recent incident “a violation of our policy and we are conducting an internal review of this incident. We have confirmed the child was safe during that time, in the care of our escorts and provided access to an air-conditioned bus, food and snacks, bottled water as well as masks and other PPE.” But the Biden administration should never have entered into a contract with it in the first place, and following this latest incident, it needs to be terminated as soon as possible.
“White House press secretary Jen Psaki said ‘there’s no excuse for this kind of treatment,’” the Post reported. ‘The reports are “outrageous, they’re unacceptable and they do not meet our standard for child care,’ Psaki said.” Doris, Joel’s mother, told NBC News that “[i]t’s very frustrating not having news from him. And all of a sudden, he calls that he is still in the same place and what can one think? Nothing good.”