After City Scrutiny, Contractor Cancels Lease for Office Used as Child Shelter

Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego told reporters that a defense contractor will no longer hold children in a downtown office building.
Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego told reporters that a defense contractor will no longer hold children in a downtown office building.
The defense contractor that used a downtown Phoenix office building as a shelter for migrant children canceled the lease for the building on Thursday, according to a member of the City Council.

Phoenix Councilwoman Kate Gallego announced that contractor MVM Inc., terminated the lease for a drab office building on East Osborn Road where children were held between May and June after they crossed the border either alone, with their families, or with friends.

City building inspectors visited the building five times this week and contacted the office's owner, Gallego said.

After an exposé by Reveal, MVM finally admitted Thursday that the Phoenix office was used to hold immigrant children overnight as they waited for transportation such as flights, contradicting an earlier statement. The building is not licensed by the Arizona Department of Health Services to serve as a childcare facility.

“We won’t stand for children being in unsafe buildings in our community," Gallego told reporters at a news conference outside of the office. She was joined by State Representative Charlene Fernandez and John Glenn, a Phoenix planning commissioner.

MVM, which is based in Virginia, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

On Monday, Gallego and other Democratic lawmakers called for a full investigation of the office building, the cancellation of the lease, and an end to the Trump administration's family separation policy which has created a humanitarian firestorm since May.

Gallego also said that the contractor gave inaccurate information about whether children were, in fact, being held at the building overnight. “There were always signs that children were being kept here overnight," she said.

The building's B-level occupancy permit does not permit overnight stays, Gallego said, adding that the building doesn’t have fire equipment or the appropriate number of exits.

Glenn, a local architect, said that he was "very, very concerned" when the news broke that MVM was able to effectively skirt local regulations and operate without the proper building permits.

The office should have gone through an adaptive review process, he said, and possibly also a rezoning process to demonstrate how the office would be suitable for overnight childcare, including the addition of windows in bedrooms, shower facilities, fire sprinklers, and proper exits.

The city needs to be "diligent" to ensure that there are no other facilities in the community that are operating in violation of code, Glenn explained.

Before the contractor started backpedaling on Wednesday, MVM spokesperson Joe Arabit initially criticized Reveal's reporting and said that MVM does not house or shelter migrant children despite a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Our services are for transport only. MVM is responsible for the safe and compassionate transport of these families and children to ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement)-approved facilities – and we are proud of the quality of care we have provided since we began this work back in 2014," Arabit wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times on Monday.

When asked if MVM may have already found another building to lease in Phoenix, Gallego said that it's possible, but added that she hopes the new scrutiny prompts MVM to find a safer building and to comply with permitting requirements.

Gallego thanked community members for speaking out, especially a neighbor, Lianna Dunlap, who spoke to Reveal. Gallego called Dunlap a "hero," and described the cancellation of the lease "an important victory."

“When we know things are going wrong at the city, we can step in and correct it," she said.

Update, July 13: Joe Arabit of MVM released a statement that said the contractor has "initiated the lease termination process." They have also initiated a program review as a result of the Phoenix office experience, he said, but again denied that MVM operates shelters or detains children.

A portion of the statement from Arabit is below:

"We work diligently with ICE, ORR and other agencies to minimize the time that these children are in transit. The process is a complex, logistical undertaking with many moving parts outside of MVM’s control, and recently complicated by a spike in the number of children and families MVM was asked to escort, a lag in flight availability, and unforeseen placement changes."

"While far from the norm, this led to some recent unavoidable delays when the period before a flight extended beyond just several hours. On those occasions and because MVM does not operate shelters, it is our policy to accompany the children affected to an appropriate accommodation such as a local hotel."

"When we identified instances in which our policy was not followed, MVM instituted tighter controls and gave employees additional instruction to prevent these regrettable exceptions from happening again."