A Native American Tribe Has a $800 Million Contract to Run ICE Detention Centers
The National Congress of American Indians has called Trump’s immigration policies ‘simply immoral.’ One member group, though, is taking a very different approach.
The Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, is currently holding many of the parents who have been separated from their kids. But while PIDC is owned by ICE, its guards are provided by a subsidiary of Ahtna, Inc., a portfolio of businesses operated by the Ahtna, a federally recognized Alaska Native people.
Ahtna, Inc. is one of a number of companies profiting off of the deportation of undocumented immigrants from the United States. Previous reporting by The Daily Beast has revealed that the federal government currently employs the services of several companies and charities bringing in millions of dollars off of the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrant families.
The Ahtna, who have also run immigrant detention centers in New York, Florida, and Arizona in addition to Port Isabel, fall under the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) umbrella, and Ahtna, Inc. is an Alaska Native Regional Corporation established by Congress under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
A recent statement from the NCAI decried the Trump administration’s “forced separation of immigrant children from their families,” calling it “simply immoral” and a reminder of “a dark period for many Native American families.”
“For decades, the U.S. government stole Native children from their parents and forced them into boarding schools hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away,” NCAI President Jefferson Keel said in the June 19 announcement. “Our communities know too well the intergenerational psychological trauma that will flow from the actions that the United States is taking today. Congress and the President should take heed of such abhorrent mistakes from the past and actually live the moral values this country proclaims to embody by immediately ending this policy and reuniting the affected children with their parents. Families belong together.”
Ahtna, Inc.’s ongoing work for ICE at PIDC would seem to put it at odds with the NCAI, which calls itself “the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country.”
Neither group, however, would speak to The Daily Beast about the conflict.
Phone messages left with the Ahtna corporate arm went unreturned, and an email sent by The Daily Beast to Ahtna, Inc.’s four top executives prompted an immediate reply from an ICE spokesperson who said, “The contractor will not be responding to your request.”
NCAI President Jefferson Keel, a Vietnam vet and lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, did not return multiple calls and emails requesting comment. Jacqueline Pata, the NCAI’s executive director in Washington, D.C., also didn’t reply to requests for comment made through her office.
(Efforts to reach another Alaska Native corporation, Chenega Facilities Management, that provides building services and maintenance, according to federal contract data provided to The Daily Beast by Human Rights Watch, were also unsuccessful.)
“I had no idea that [Port Isabel] was connected to any First Nations group at all,” an attorney who regularly visits the facility told The Daily Beast. “The guards there are almost exclusively of Latino heritage; they hire locally and I honestly doubt the guards even know they’re working for a First Nations corporation.”
The Ahtna have been operating immigration detention centers for ICE since at least 2002 (PDF), and have been staffing the Port Isabel Detention Center, which can hold up to 1,200 detainees, for about a decade (PDF). Unarmed guards at Port Isabel receive 67 hours of training (PDF). Armed guards get an extra eight hours of firearms instruction. Detainees get two hot meals and one cold meal a day (PDF), and all outgoing mail is photocopied.
Port Isabel doesn’t house kids, but juvenile detainees and families are “supervised by the contractor”—Ahtna, in this case—at “off-site” locations, according to ICE documents (PDF). Guards at Port Isabel have reportedly told some detainees that if they want to see their children, they should withdraw their asylum claims.
“We spoke with 10 detained mothers at Port Isabel,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) told The Daily Beast. “The image of mothers in prison jumpsuits explaining through tears that they don’t know where their children are, or what will happen to them, is still seared into my memory. What is happening right now is an outrage,” he said, before Trump signed an executive order to end his own family separation policy.
From 2008 to 2015, Ahtna Technical Services (ATSI) did the work at Port Isabel. Since then, ICE’s payments for guard services there have gone to Ahtna Support and Training Services (ASTS), another Ahtna, Inc. subsidiary. ICE has made at least seven payments to ASTS so far in 2018, the most recent coming on May 25 in the amount of $17,714,355.20, Komala Ramachandra, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast.
Ahtna will earn a guaranteed minimum of $800 million over the life of the contract, which has an option to run through 2022 (PDF).
“Personally, I see this sort of business venture as deeply problematic,” one member of the Temagami First Nation said in an email.
According to an analysis of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data obtained by New York City-based advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants, there were at least 1,016 reports of sexual abuse or assault filed by detainees in U.S. immigration facilities between May 2014 and July 2016, or more than one a day. Twenty-four of those complaints—2.4 percent—were investigated. On top of that, detainees filed 402 reports of “coerced sexual contact,” 196 reports of “sexual harassment,” and 380 reports of “physical or sexual abuse” by ICE.
DHS figures show four complaints of sexual abuse between 2013 and 2015 at Port Isabel specifically, Rebecca Merton of Freedom for Immigrants told The Daily Beast.
In one, a contract guard named Lorenzo Vasquez admitted to engaging in two sexual acts with a detainee. The indictment details some, but not all, of what Vasquez copped to in March 2014, including “penetration of the anus of [the detainee] by finger.”
Vasquez was sentenced to six months in prison followed by six months of home confinement, and ordered by the judge not to “seek or maintain employment as a correctional officer, or similar employment, without prior written approval of the Court.”
In 2010, a Port Isabel contract guard was sentenced to three years in prison after he pleaded guilty to sneaking into the detention center infirmary on several occasions during 2008 and groping at least five different women.
The following year, another contract guard at Port Isabel was brought up on criminal charges for kicking a detainee in the face and fracturing his orbital bone. The assault itself occurred in 2009, the year after Ahtna, Inc.’s contract began.
“The facility is notoriously known for the systematic sexual, physical, and financial abuse by the officers who work at the detention facility,” read the criminal complaint in that case. “Many of the abuses that go on in the facility are documented in Between the Fences Before Guantanamo, There was the Port Isabel Service Processing Center, a book written by Tony Hefner. Mr. Hefner was a former security guard at the detention center and witnessed many of the atrocities that took place in the detention center.”
In a 2014 wrongful termination lawsuit, former Port Isabel guard Israel Cortez said he witnessed “alarming corruption and violations of basic human rights” during his four years working there. Hefner’s book, Cortez’s complaint said, “corroborates these facts.”
Hefner’s memoir recounts his five years working at Port Isabel, which was prior to Ahtna, Inc. winning the contract. During his time there, Hefner claims to have seen staffers sexually assault teenage detainees, both male and female, and physically and psychologically abuse the people ostensibly in their care.
All female detainees were transferred out of Port Isabel in 2009 (PDF).
Between 2009 and 2015, three detainees at Port Isabel have died—one from cardiac arrest, one from natural causes, and one 31-year-old Honduran whose cause of death is still listed in DHS records as “pending.”
At a 2012 congressional hearing, ACLU lawyers testified that “while centers in Texas resulted in the largest number of allegations, sexual abuse allegations have come from nearly every state that houses an immigration detention center.” And a 2015 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated (PDF), “It is difficult to determine whether each ICE contractor is complying with [Prison Rape Elimination Act] standards or even with the appropriately corresponding detention standards specified by its contract even with ICE monitoring and inspection schemes.”
Still, the lawyer who visits Port Isabel on a regular basis and spoke to The Daily Beast said it’s “one of the better-run facilities” they’ve seen in the ICE detention network. Although the guards work for a private company, there is a modicum of accountability due to a “substantial ICE presence” at the center that keeps things from “running wild.”
Yet, it remains “a tough place to be because the vast majority of people [detained at Port Isabel] are asylum seekers with no criminal history and aren’t used to this kind of prison atmosphere,” said the source. “Especially now, with parents who have been separated from their children, there’s a real sense of hopelessness.
“The most challenging thing for them is the absence of information, they just don’t know what’s going on,” the source continued.
“The parents were asking us the other day how they could get in touch with their kids, and we have this ICE flyer, but we really can’t answer their ‘what if?’ questions. And frankly, I don’t think ICE can, either—I don’t think they’ve thought this through far enough.”