These are among the allegations leveled by a handful of volunteers fed up with what they see as jail-like conditions at a migrant youth facility operated out of the Dallas Convention Center. It’s just one of several federal shelters set up in recent months to house a significant jump in the number of unaccompanied young people apprehended at the southern border of the United States.
In other words, it’s not a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention center. But volunteers say it still seems an awful lot like these kids are behind bars.
In mid-March, over 2,200 unaccompanied migrant youths were brought to the Dallas facility. Though it was at least originally slated to close in less than a month, over 1,400 remain. When the shelter first opened, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—the agency responsible for the migrant youths after they leave CBP custody—worked with the Red Cross to manage the facility with support of local nonprofits.
Then, near the end of March, a military contractor called Culmen International was granted a $2 million contract by HHS to take over day-to-day management. On April 19, the contract ballooned to $29.5 million.
That’s when volunteers say things took a turn.
Kirsten Chilstrom, a Dallas-based special education teacher, started volunteering at the convention center shortly after the young people arrived as a part of a program managed by the Catholic Charities of Dallas. She describes Culmen’s treatment of the youths in carceral terms.
“It’s disturbing... They are being treated like prisoners, and it’s insane,” Chilstrom told The Daily Beast.
Sam Hodges, a Dallas-based MBA student who volunteers with the Catholic Charities, echoed Chilstrom’s assessment of Culmen International’s management of the facility. “They treat it like it’s a jail,” Hodges said.
For weeks, Chilstrom and Hodges said, they and other volunteers advocated for improvements without running afoul of what they described as a policy meant to protect the privacy of the youths at the facility: don’t talk to the press. Having seen little progress, both Chilstrom and Hodges decided to speak on the record for this story. Two other volunteers and one concerned Culmen employee also shared information about their experiences with The Daily Beast under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. The Daily Beast also reviewed emails sent by a fifth volunteer expressing concerns to HHS.
“At this point, I think it’s for the wellbeing of the kids,” Chilstrom said.
As The New York Times and others have reported, the number of children in the custody of CBP has declined as they have been transferred from facilities designed for adults to HHS-managed shelters thought of as more suitable for children. But volunteers say the situation in Dallas suggests being transferred from one agency to another is no salve for the crisis facing young people detained at the border.
Culmen International does not typically oversee the welfare of children. Their website describes their mission as “enhancing national and international security, supporting military readiness, and providing technology solutions.” But job listings for “Humanitarian Support Staff” indicate Culmen has a role in managing at least two other migrant facilities, in San Antonio and San Diego.
Culmen declined to comment for this story and directed requests to HHS staff.
In a written statement, HHS said the site is intended as a temporary measure, where the children are provided clean sleeping quarters, meals, laundry, recreational activities, and access to medical services. They did not respond directly to the claims made by volunteers, but stated that they require care providers to report and document all significant incidents in accordance with mandatory reporting laws, state licensing requirements, federal laws, and regulations.
According to advocates like Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, it is an unfortunate truth that many of these large facilities are run by private, for-profit contractors with little to no child welfare experience. “Private security contractors should not be in the business of child welfare, and it’s outrageous to think companies are profiteering off vulnerable children as they cut corners,” Vignarajah said.
Perhaps the most disturbing complaint: volunteers say Culmen does not provide adequate quality and amounts of food, leaving some of the kids hungry. “Numerous children have told me they are hungry and have begged me for additional food even after they have had a meal,” Chilstrom told The Daily Beast. “The food quality is subpar at best... Culmen pays for separate meal service for their employees and they throw out anything that they don’t use."
Hodges bolstered that contention, noting that many children have mentioned they go hungry. “The rationing is not proper,” he said. The Culmen employee echoed their concerns.
Emails reviewed by The Daily Beast sent by a different volunteer to representatives at HHS suggested the food situation amounted to “negligence” and “child abuse,” and specifically pointed to how Culmen ordered separate meals for their staff. The HHS representative responded by saying the concerns would be shared with Culmen, which is responsible for managing and distributing the budget for food. They also instructed volunteers to file incident reports for any maltreatment they witness.
Likewise, Hodges and Chilstrom both relayed stories they said they heard from migrants about how they would wake up to find that others had been transferred in the dead of night, with no explanation of whether they were sent to a sponsor or to another facility. “I would ask them what happened to so-and-so, and they would say, ‘I don’t know, they just came in the middle of the night and took them somewhere else,’” Hodges said. The Culmen employee corroborated these stories.
Volunteers also described how a paucity of mental-health services and education has taken a serious toll on the kids. For over a month, they have been confined inside the convention center, where their movements are highly regimented. They have to ask permission to use the restroom and are only allowed to leave the main room where they sleep to eat and shower, according to three volunteers and the Culmen employee.
In late April, Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, an immigration attorney based in Dallas who’s volunteered at the convention center, expressed concerns about the situation in an interview with CNN. “[G]oing on a month in one room has to take its toll on the mental health of those boys,” she said.
On April 23, Chilstrom told The Daily Beast, two children fainted. “I arrived after the first one, and was present for the second. It was in the middle of the center,” she claimed.
The Daily Beast reviewed contemporaneous text messages Chilstrom sent about the alleged incident to another volunteer, as well as an email sent by a different volunteer to HHS referring to kids “possibly fainting due to a lack of nutrients.”
Volunteers and the Culmen employee repeatedly emphasized the traumatic nature of the experiences some of the youth described facing in their home countries and while traveling to the United States. And advocates emphasize that the conditions in Dallas are likely to further traumatize children who have already been traumatized.
“Child welfare means so much more than just a roof over their head,” Vignarajah said. “There, there is a lack of transparency around the standards of care these facilities and their operators are held to… It’s so important to have robust, state-licensed operations, ideally rooted in community-based, trauma-informed models of care.” Though effectively operating in a manner similar to temporary childcare facilities, ProPublica reporting suggests some of these operations may fall short of state license requirements.
Hodges, Chilstrom, and other volunteers have participated in efforts to help connect migrant youths with their families, and described case management progress as slow and inadequate. With over 1,400 youths still at the center, and less than a month left until the center is slated to close, much work is left to be done to reunify children with their families or sponsors. According to Vignarajah and other sources familiar with the matter, approximately 80 percent of the youths have a family member in the United States. According to a statement from HHS, after the youths have been released to a sponsor or sent to a more appropriate long-term HHS shelter, they will be eligible to go through immigration proceedings and petition for asylum.
“It’s critically important that we provide the case management necessary to as quickly and safely as possible to get these kids out of these facilities and into the arms of their families,” Vignarajah said.
In Dallas, the management of the effort has been contracted to the Providencia Group, a for-profit federal contractor that only came into existence in June 2020. On March 17, they were awarded $14.6 million to provide end-to-end case management services, including sponsor assessments and timely reunification. The Providencia Group currently has open job listings for roles in Dallas and San Antonio, suggesting they are responsible for case management at more than one shelter.
As of this writing, volunteers say, there are no full-time case managers working on site, and all case management interaction with the migrant youths thus far has been done via forms and video conferences.
“Case management can be time intensive and requires experienced social workers, ideally who are bilingual,” Vignarajah said.
The Providencia Group did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
While Culmen International’s contract was anticipated to end on May 31, coinciding with the anticipated closing date of the facility at the Dallas Convention Center, the contract awarded to the Providencia Group was slated to end July 16. That suggests the center could remain open past May or that the remaining youth will be transferred to another facility.
“It’s disheartening, but not entirely surprising, to hear allegations of inadequate care in this type of facility,” Vignarajah told The Daily Beast. “These facilities must be governed by the fundamental principle that these children are not just in their custody, but their care.”