Democrats Denounce Defense Contractor That Held Migrant Kids in Phoenix Office

State Senator and Assistant Minority Leader Steve Farley, a Democrat, addresses reporters outside of a makeshift shelter for immigrant children on Monday.
State Senator and Assistant Minority Leader Steve Farley, a Democrat, addresses reporters outside of a makeshift shelter for immigrant children on Monday. Joseph Flaherty
Standing outside of a featureless Phoenix office building that doubles as a shelter for detained immigrant children, Democratic lawmakers condemned the federal contractor that used the building as a makeshift  holding facility for children amid the Trump administration's family separation crisis.

On Friday, Reveal reported that children were held inside of the downtown Phoenix office building by defense contractor MVM Inc. The office, located on East Osborn Road, does not have a license from the Arizona Department of Health Services to serve as a childcare facility.

State Senator Steve Farley, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said the facility should be inspected immediately by the Arizona Department of Child Safety and ADHS.

"We cannot allow these illegal private prisons for children to be operated in our community," he said. "The entire 'zero tolerance' policy is a disaster and must be stopped."

Farley called on Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to order his state agencies to inspect other locations where children are being kept.

Virginia-based defense contractor MVM Inc. leased the building starting in March. MVM has a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and described the facility as "a temporary holding place" for children in transit between federal immigration authorities and the Department of Health and Human Services.

“There’s been times where I drive by and I just start crying because, you know, it’s right behind my house,” neighbor Lianna Dunlap told Reveal in the bombshell story.

Under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, parents crossing the border since May have been separated from their children, with kids consigned to U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facilities or shelters operated by non-governmental operators with federal contracts.

Now, confusion has wracked the government as officials struggle to reunite families in order to meet a deadline set by a federal judge in San Diego. Children under 5 years old must be reunited with their families by Tuesday, July 10, although legal negotiations are ongoing.

At least one member of Phoenix's city government wants the shelter investigated. Councilwoman Kate Gallego, who is currently running for mayor, said that she was "deeply disappointed" to learn ICE is mistreating migrant children by holding them in a makeshift shelter.

Gallego said that she has asked city staff to review the shelter for potential violations of city code. "This is not a well-planned operation," she told reporters. "This is not a facility that is appropriate for housing scared children – who should not have been separated from the parents to begin with."

Additionally, Gallego said that the Phoenix Police Department received a call for service from the address after a young man escaped while being transported to the facility.

Police inspected the building this weekend and did not see any children, Gallego said, but Phoenix's fire and planning departments will inspect the building today at her request.

Contractors work at the behest of the federal government, but they are required to follow city regulations, Gallego reminded reporters. "I would encourage the federal administration to rethink this terrible policy," she said.

In an email to Phoenix New Times, MVM pushed back on Reveal's article and called the story "irresponsible and blatantly wrong."

There are no children housed at the office building, spokesperson Joe Arabit said. He said that MVM uses buildings like this one as temporary waiting stops in between transportation. "MVM does not operate any shelters or house migrant families or children," Arabit wrote. "Our services are for transport only."

MVM seems to be doing more than a little hair-splitting, with the contractor emphasizing a distinction between a shelter and a temporary holding facility.   

Arabit also explained that ICE and the Bureau of Child Care Licensing within ADHS approved the use of the building; ADHS told MVM that it did not require any license, he said.

ADHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an email, Ducey spokesperson Elizabeth Berry said that the governor's office has instructed ADHS "to monitor this situation closely to ensure child and public safety comes first."

The agency has proactively assigned staff to monitor the site, she said, but ADHS officials have not yet received a formal complaint about the building.

"The governor has been very clear: Every child deserves to be properly cared for, and he takes issues around child safety very seriously," Berry wrote.

Other federal contractors in Arizona have come under scrutiny as a result of the fallout from the "zero tolerance" policy, including Austin-based Southwest Key, a nonprofit that operates several shelters in the Phoenix metro area. The shelters – fenced properties that resemble schools or ranch homes – have run afoul of ADHS regulations.

Last month, New Times reported that Southwest Key properties missed deadlines to re-register their license, failed to check an employee's background on time, and, in one instance, faced an ADHS investigation for illegally restraining a minor on Christmas Day.

State Senator Martín Quezada, also a Democrat, demanded the cancellation of all contracts with MVM. He said that this episode adds to the argument for abolishing ICE.

"This agency has gone far beyond what it was ever intended to do, and this is a prime example of that," Quezada said. The agency "has gone rogue," he added.

When asked about abolishing ICE, Farley would not go as far as Quezada. Nor would he echo his primary opponent David Garcia, who on Monday called for the immigration system to be rebuilt from the ground up.

"ICE needs to be fixed – not abolished," Farley said.

This article has been updated with a statement from the governor's office.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty