Fort Bliss migrant children shelter contractor receives nearly $1B contract despite mismanagement allegations
This article features Government Accountability Project’s disclosures and was originally published here.
There was little that showed who managed a Fort Bliss shelter for migrant children but a sheet of paper taped to a trailer with three letters in black type: RDI.
The company, Rapid Deployment Inc., had a history of doing business with the U.S. government. It put up base camps for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. In 2020, it set up quarantine shelters for Health and Human Services, providing meals, laundry service and bus transportation. It supplied mobile morgues to hold the dead.
But from the trailer parked near sprawling white tents it erected on the El Paso Army base, RDI was taking on a task unlike any that appeared in its 106 other federal contracts in the public record. It wouldn’t be housing hurricane first responders or sheltering cruise ship tourists sick with COVID-19.
It would care for children who had surrendered to Border Patrol, without their parents or a legal guardian, at the U.S.-Mexico border. It would build a campus of tent dormitories for up to 5,000 boys and girls, house, feed, supervise and care for them and find their adult sponsor in the U.S.
For the job, it would be paid almost a billion dollars.
Federal records show a contract that ballooned to $996 million — a deal now worth nearly three times all of RDI’s previous federal work, ever. Its past government contracts and delivery orders totaled $336 million, many of them garnered during the pandemic.
The Biden administration didn’t declare a national emergency, but the administration selected Fort Bliss and a dozen other locations for so-called “emergency intake” shelters to respond to a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border seeking asylum or refuge.
RDI’s contract was most recently extended through Sept. 11. There were 2,301 children sheltered at Fort Bliss on Aug. 31, according to HHS, principally 13- to 17-year-olds.
Within six days of signing the original contract on March 24 with HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, the company built roughly a dozen structures within a secure perimeter: tent dormitories the size of football fields, outfitted with military-style bunk beds in a grid more than 60 rows deep; a cafeteria, portable bathrooms and showers; and tent quarters for children with COVID-19. RDI managers kept a modular office in the trailer with the paper sign.
Allegations of mismanagement and “unacceptable” conditions quickly followed the shelter’s opening.
Half a dozen contract and federal workers at the Fort Bliss site alleged to the Times over the summer that children were being held for weeks without seeing a caseworker who could reunite them with a sponsor in the U.S. That infections of COVID-19 and lice were rampant. That the children had inadequate access to clean clothes and were suffering mental health breakdowns amid crowded conditions.
In May, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, described the setup of the children’s shelter as “risky to their health and their safety,” and she called on HHS to improve conditions. Four civil servant whistleblowers would file two complaints to federal oversight agencies, and the allegations spawned an ongoing investigation by the HHS Office of the Inspector General.
Especially troubling to child advocates was the hiring of clean-up company Servpro to handle the care and supervision of the children. A Servpro franchise in May took over care of children unbeknownst to its corporate parent and without childcare experience.
Despite the issues, HHS expanded or extended RDI’s contract 10 times, according to records in the Federal Procurement Data System.
RDI Chief Executive Bruce Wagner was at the top of the Fort Bliss site’s management hierarchy in April, according to internal documents obtained by the El Paso Times.
Dubbed by Forbes magazine as Alabama’s little-known “Master of Disaster” for his ability to garner emergency response contracts from the government, Wagner had made a name for RDI with HHS’ Office of Preparedness and Response during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wagner declined to speak to the Times and referred questions to HHS.
HHS has repeatedly declined to answer questions regarding the prime and subcontractors at the Fort Bliss shelter since it opened March 30. The agency, whose Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Refugee Resettlement is tasked with caring for unaccompanied children, has yet to fulfill FOIA requests for contract records.
“When awarding contracts, HHS follows the Federal Acquisition Regulation,” the Office of Communications for the Administration for Children and Families said in an emailed statement. “Contractual matters are between the government and vendors.”
‘A horrible mess’:Contractor issues add to turmoil at Fort Bliss migrant children shelter
Reporting by the El Paso Times — drawing from public records, multiple internal government and contractor documents and worker interviews — has identified RDI as the prime contractor plus at least a dozen subcontractors with responsibilities on site.
Neither the contract nor the solicitation, which could lay out expectations and standards of care for the emergency shelter, have been made public.
The ‘childcare component’
As the newly inaugurated Biden administration prepared to meet an expected increase in the number of migrant children arriving alone at the U.S.-Mexico border, it leaned heavily on FEMA contractors to stand up roughly 16,000 beds at shelters dubbed “emergency intake sites.”
It was a new designation with standards that child advocates say aren’t clear or high enough. Advocates warned early on that the gap between meeting the needs of hurricane evacuees or COVID-sick adults, and meeting the needs of unaccompanied migrant children, is huge.
“They need to be protected in a different way,” said one provider of care for unaccompanied children who requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize government awards. “It’s the childcare component that is the heavier lift than standing up tents, a mobile kitchen and portable showers.”
The sheer size of the Fort Bliss shelter operation put it out of reach for many of the mostly nonprofit organizations that run shelters for unaccompanied minors on behalf of HHS. The next-largest sites were at convention centers in Dallas and San Antonio, with capacity to shelter fewer than 2,500 children.
“Most of the companies that really do this work are small and don’t have the capacity to meet the contract specifications,” said the federal worker who served at the Fort Bliss shelter and isn’t authorized to speak with the press. “But those that can meet the specifications don’t know how to do this work with children.”
Advocates say some of the emergency shelters were run better than others.
In July, HHS provided a media tour of a site in Pomona, Calif., where dorms were organized into small pods and children had education and playtime. HHS has denied the Times’ requests for a tour of the Fort Bliss site.
At the Fort Bliss shelter, the children slept on cots three feet apart, according to former workers.
For months, there weren’t enough caseworkers; the children were frequently living in filth, suffering depression and said they “felt like they were in prison,” according to the second of two whistleblower complaints.
Escobar, the El Paso congresswoman, repeatedly called for the children to be processed more quickly and for living conditions to be improved.
A need to act quickly
The number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the Southwest border began rising in December, ticking higher in January and February before rising sharply in March.
That month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered 18,873 children traveling alone — roughly double the prior month and six times the number during the same month a year ago.
The Biden administration was contending “with larger numbers than had ever been faced before and clearly not an adequate number of beds, because of decisions made by the prior administration,” said Mark Greenberg, a former official in the HHS Administration for Children and Families and senior policy fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
HHS had struggled during the pandemic to expand its network of permanent shelters, where children are supposed to be housed while case workers search for their sponsors in the U.S. At the same time, many licensed shelter providers had to reduce their bed counts to make room for social distance and quarantine protocol.
The Biden administration wanted to meet the critical goal of pulling the children out of Border Patrol custody as fast as possible. In 2018 and 2019, five children died while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
That meant the administration “needed to do something very quickly,” Greenberg said. “Under these circumstances they couldn’t have done a normal competitive-bid contracting situation. When they did this though, they did not put in place the basic standards and protections that should have been there from the beginning for facilities caring for unaccompanied children.”
The administration turned to emergency response contractors for immediate action — businesses such as Rapid Deployment.
Mobile, Alabama-based Rapid Deployment secured the contract “to provide the full complement of services necessary to care for UC,” or unaccompanied children, “in ORR custody including facilities set-up, maintenance and support; internal and perimeter (if applicable) security, direct care and supervision.”
It was initially valued at $197 million in March, according to the federal procurement database. By late August, it had risen to $996 million. The award is listed in a federal procurement database as “not competed,” with the reason given as “urgency.”
Planning for increased migration
It isn’t clear what government solicitation RDI responded to, as the field for a solicitation ID number was left blank in the federal database that tracks the contracts. Neither HHS nor the Government Services Administration responded to the Times’ requests for the solicitation.
But as early as fall 2020, HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement had been planning for a potential increase in migration.
Changes in administrations — regardless of political party — have historically motivated people to migrate, as smuggler coyotes sell messages of hope or fear.
COVID-19 had also interrupted usual migration patterns between Central America and the U.S., even as economic damage from the pandemic in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other nations created pent-up demand for opportunities in el norte. With vaccines on the horizon and travel restrictions becoming more relaxed in the region, it was likely more people would begin moving north again.
HHS issued a 42-page “sources sought” notice in fall 2020 seeking a contractor to “provide management, supervision and services to UC” at an “influx site.”
“To that end,” the notice said, “possessing corporate capabilities related to the care and support of unaccompanied alien children and/or similarly situated at-risk, minor populations is critical to the success of this effort.”
Rather than “influx sites,” the Biden administration opted to open 14 so-called “emergency intake” shelters in convention centers in San Diego, Los Angeles, Dallas and San Antonio; at an oilfield workers camp in Pecos, Texas; in a warehouse in Houston; and on military bases in San Antonio and El Paso.
RDI in charge at Fort Bliss
Wagner, the chief executive, touted Rapid Deployment’s emergency response expertise to Forbes magazine in March 2020.
“We’re pretty much deployed either by states or by the federal government when anything happens at all,” Wagner said. “We build the FEMA camps, the tent cities, and we’ve been building them for years and years and years. We’ve built more FEMA responder support camps than any other contractor in the United States.”
At Fort Bliss, Wagner was listed at the top of a management hierarchy alongside two HHS officials, according to a chart obtained by the El Paso Times.
There were numerous subcontractors on site from the outset — a number that remains publicly unknown but which alarmed Escobar, the El Paso congresswoman, after her initial visits.
“I am very concerned about the number of subcontractors and vendors on site and what I consider to be ineffective oversight,” she said in late May. “I don’t know how they are being vetted; I don’t know how they are being evaluated. I don’t know what their metrics are for quality, for effectiveness, for efficiency.”
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Escobar, who visited the site again in August, said she has since “been very impressed by the progress made” and attributed improvements on site to HHS leadership.
“I see them continue to move in the right direction,” she said. “Does that alleviate my concern over the contract itself? No. Any time we have a contract of this magnitude, our obligation as members of Congress is to make sure that we’re getting what we need to be getting with those dollars.”
One thing that didn’t change, much:
An HHS document obtained by the Times lists a new company in charge of direct care and supervision of the children: Wyoming National Logistics, with the qualifier “formerly known as Servpro.”
Both Servpro of Douglas County in Oregon and Wyoming National Logistics are registered with the Oregon Secretary of State to the same address. A Servpro corporate spokeswoman confirmed that the operator “is no longer active in the Servpro franchise system.”
The Times attempted to reach the registered agent with Wyoming National Logistics unsuccessfully.
Calls for ’emergency’ shelters to close
Child advocates have been calling on the Biden administration to wind down the “emergency intake sites,” which “provide fewer services to children than both temporary ‘influx’ facilities and permanent, licensed shelters,” according to the nonprofit Kids In Need of Defense, or KIND.
An HHS spokesperson told the Times that the agency “has taken action to improve the conditions at Fort Bliss and at all emergency intake sites.”
“Children are receiving nutritionally-appropriate meals, and there are 60 mental health professionals on site at Fort Bliss and counselors at all other emergency intake sites,” the HHS spokesperson said in an email. “We also have increased case management services to place children with family or sponsors as quickly as possible.”
The White House confirmed that Biden didn’t issue an emergency declaration regarding immigration at the Southwest border and said that one wasn’t needed in order to set up the “emergency intake” shelters.
“The White House convenes weekly inter-agency meetings with HHS and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) on the subject of unaccompanied minors, and that their proper care continues to be a top priority for the administration,” a White House spokesperson said in an email.
The administration has shut down most of the emergency sites as the number of children arriving has slowed but has not provided a timeline for closing the one at Fort Bliss.
Demanding more oversight
Some congressional representatives have sought the contracts doled out by HHS to run “emergency intake” shelters in their communities, without result.
Early on, Escobar asked HHS for a list of contractors and subcontractors on site and received what she believed to be an incomplete list — “a huge red flag,” she said at the time.
U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) sought the contract associated with an “emergency intake” shelter in Erie, Pa.
“The Department of Health and Human Services has yet to provide a copy of the contract despite repeated follow-ups,” he told the Times.
House Committee on Oversight and Reform Ranking Member James Comer (R-Ky.) voiced concerns about “suspicious government contracts.” The committee is the one that received the formal whistleblower complaint on conditions at Fort Bliss.
“Oversight Republicans have repeatedly sounded the alarm about conditions at the border,” he said, and have requested a hearing on the welfare of migrant children being held in custody. “Democrats have refused to hold a single hearing on the border crisis despite holding several hearings during the previous administration.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House oversight committee, said the issues raised by the whistleblower complaint “are deeply concerning.”
“The Committee will be working to ensure that these allegations are taken seriously,” she said in an emailed statement.
Signs of improved care for now
As of Aug. 30, HHS had 14,840 children in its care — down from the record 23,000 in April but well above the number of beds available in HHS’ network of permanent, licensed shelters. At the time the “emergency intake sites” were set up, there were about 8,000 beds available in the permanent network.
Escobar visited the Fort Bliss shelter on Aug. 6 and spoke to about 15 children.
The double-stacked bunks had been removed, she said, and children were spending far less time at the site than they had been during the summer.
“Of all the kids I spoke to, the majority said they were there between seven and nine days,” she said. “There was only one child who had been there a couple of weeks. Every one of the kids told me they were being treated very well.
“One child — and this was an enormous relief — said that when she talks to her caseworkers, it’s like talking to her tías. She felt comforted by them. She felt cared for by them,” Escobar said. “That is radically different than what I heard the last time.”