Biden Showers Cash on Ex-CIA Contractor to Transfer Migrants
“This is a really abusive company that has profited off of the worst of this country’s policies regarding detention, torture, and widespread abuses.”
Joe Biden once pledged to “undo the moral and national shame” of the Trump administration’s border policies—and even voiced remorse over some actions taken under President Barack Obama. But The Daily Beast has found that his administration is redoubling the federal government’s dealings with a notorious contractor accused of abusing immigrants and its own employees.
The Biden administration has, in the past month, enlarged one contract and signed another entirely new one—worth a collective $136 million—with a controversial private security and intelligence firm for the transport of migrant families and unaccompanied minors in government custody. MVM, Inc., a company previously perhaps best known for acting as a contractor for the CIA and the NSA in Iraq, has in recent years become a major player in the U.S. government’s treatment of asylum-seekers, all the while inviting scrutiny for an apparently lax approach to the safety of those in its care. During the infamous 2018 family separation policy, MVM was found to be holding children, including some separated from their parents, in an abandoned Phoenix office building.
Most disturbingly, in the past six months alone, MVM has had to shell out $1.8 million to settle federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims that it had discriminated against African immigrant workers and subjected women on its payroll to sexual harassment and retaliation. This rattled good government advocates, even though the company avoided any admission of wrongdoing.
“The two cases raise profound questions of MVM’s corporate integrity and responsibility,” said Nick Schwellenbach, senior investigator at the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight and a Daily Beast contributor. “Especially given the Biden administration’s emphasis on combatting discrimination, it shouldn’t award new contract dollars to companies that systematically violate federal anti-discrimination law.”
Neither MVM nor the White House responded to requests for comment for this story.
In addition to many other federal contracts, since 2014 MVM has received hundreds of millions of dollars from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to ferry unaccompanied minors from the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—the enforcement agency that typically has initial custody of asylum-seekers arriving at the southern border—to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which by law is responsible for caring for such minors.
On March 29, DHS exercised an option that more than doubled the size of its current contract for transport of children and families to a $128 million obligated amount, with the possibility of further expansions.
Experts on federal procurement policy said this reflected a conscious decision in the Biden administration to increase its business with MVM, likely to avoid the inconvenience of bidding out the job through the usual competitive process.
"They’re definitely continuing that contract,” said Laura Peterson, senior research advisor at the National Whistleblower Center and a former staffer on the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. “The government can keep going back to the well over and over with these options or these modifications, and it’s easier for the government.”
Four days earlier, on March 25, MVM had signed a new contract with HHS for “staffing and resources necessary to arrange travel and escort for [unaccompanied children] in [Office of Refugee Resettlement] custody,” referencing the HHS sub-agency that oversees migrant minors. The description appears to state that the services will be performed in part at recently set-up emergency influx shelters in Dallas and Midland, Texas. The initial $20 million amount was expanded by $52 million on April 22 as a result of “additional work,” for a total of $72 million so far.
HHS declined to comment for this story, and ICE did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for CBP said the agency would ensure a contractor would adhere to the terms of its contract, but would defer to ICE on its contracting decisions.
In the past month, meanwhile, MVM has posted a raft of new job opportunities on the site Glassdoor.com, largely for travel youth care workers, transportation coordinators, and logistics specialists. Several of the listings indicate that the employees will assist with family reunification efforts.
While HHS has hired MVM to provide security and shelter services in the past, this marks the first time that MVM has inked a contract with the agency to provide transportation and logistics assistance with migrant minors. The description of the services indicates that the contractor has now been hired not only to bring children into ORR custody but to transport them internally within ORR’s own nationwide stable of shelter facilities, including from unlicensed influx shelters.
This represents a significant expansion in the scope of duties for a private firm that’s been dogged by documented instances of carelessness and secrecy even just with respect to its handling of migrant children. In addition to the office building incident, MVM last year infamously began keeping minors in hotels while they awaited expulsion under the CDC Title 42 order, a Trump-era measure tenuously tied to the coronavirus pandemic that allowed CBP to quickly remove migrants before they could even make an asylum claim. A viral video from July 2020 shows an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project attempting to speak to children held at a Texas Hampton Inn and being aggressively manhandled by MVM personnel. Attorneys and advocates complained that no one was being allowed to check the status of or communicate with children in these hotels, and that it wasn’t clear if MVM’s security-focused employees had the training or capacity to provide care for them.
“This is a really abusive company that has profited off of the worst of this country’s policies regarding detention, torture, and widespread abuses,” said Jesse Franzblau, senior policy analyst at the National Immigrant Justice Center, referencing not only MVM’s domestic migrant transfer work but contracts to provide guard services at the Migrant Operations Center in Guantánamo Bay. “This administration, while leading with this rhetoric around having a humane approach towards immigration—it’s really terrible that they are continuing these contracts.”
Watchdogs found the allegations that triggered the EEOC claims unsettling as well. In December 2020, MVM coughed up $1.6 million to get rid of a federal lawsuit that accused it of subjecting African immigrant security personnel to verbal abuse—including a manager’s mockery of their accents and comments about how the company had brought on “too many Africans”—forced them to work on days off, threatened them with dismissal, and even fired some without cause. Less than a month later, it paid out $200,000 to resolve separate litigation that charged one of its managers made unwanted physical and verbal advances toward a number of female employees. When one complained, the suit asserted, the company canned her.
This was hardly MVM’s first run-in with EEOC: in 2017, the federal regulator took the firm to court over claims a supervisor forced a Muslim worker to shave his beard after he complained about being called a “n-gga.” The company settled then, too, and the worker walked away with $135,000. In each case, in answer to the EEOC complaints, MVM’s attorneys admitted many of the allegations and denied some, but generally sought to get the suits thrown out on legal technicalities—before the company finally settled.
Schwellenbach, of the Project on Government Oversight, noted that these deals allow MVM to get away without admitting wrongdoing or risking debarment from future government business.
“MVM’s managers engaged in large-scale discrimination,” he said. “Its employees filed complaints internally and faced retaliation as a result. That points to a toxic corporate culture that goes to the top, rather than just bad managers.”
In recent days, the number of minors being taken into CBP custody at the border has dipped, though the figures remain near historic highs. This is at least partly due to the Biden administration’s decision to maintain the Title 42 order, which continues to bar adults and families—but no longer unaccompanied children—from presenting asylum claims. This child exemption, first ordered by a federal judge and now followed voluntarily by the administration, has incentivized families to send their children into the country alone, along with others who have traveled to the border by themselves.
The government has been struggling to quickly transfer children from CBP custody, where they’re only supposed to be for a maximum of 72 hours, to HHS. Over the course of April, it managed to significantly reduce this number, from over 5,000 at the beginning of the month to less than 1,000 on April 29. However, MVM’s history raises concerns about the safety of the transfer process, particularly now that the company is involved in moving children around ORR shelters.
A staffer at the House Homeland Security Committee, which has direct oversight over the treatment of unaccompanied minors at the border, confirmed to The Daily Beast that they had not been informed of the contract or given any details by HHS. “The lack of transparency is a huge concern. These contracts seem to be negotiated and go forward with little to no oversight,” said Franzblau, of the National Immigrant Justice Center.