The woman who led the U.S. Border Patrol and oversaw family separation under President Donald Trump later landed a job ensuring the care of migrant children as border crossings increased in early 2021.
Former Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost became site director at the Pecos Children’s Center, a 2,000-bed privately run emergency shelter in West Texas for migrant children, according to records obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a contract worth up to $789 million with the San Antonio-based nonprofit Endeavors to run the site, located on a former workers’ camp at an abandoned oil field. Provost is no longer site director but is currently an Endeavors contractor, according to the company. A Department of Health and Human Services official said the agency didn’t know Provost ran the Pecos shelter, and federal rules prohibit it from controlling contractors’ hiring and firing decisions.
Migrant children’s shelters house unaccompanied minors who are held indefinitely until they’re reunited with a sponsor.
The shelters usually are run by contractors well versed in social services, assigned to oversee the well-being of refugee children who are far from their families. Provost’s background, however, is in law enforcement – and during her tenure at the top under the Trump administration, migrant children in particular bore the brunt of the government’s crackdown on immigrants.
The shelters are not run by the Border Patrol or U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement; they operate under contracts and grants through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for the specialized care of migrant children seeking to reunite with family members in the United States.
Provost led the Border Patrol through Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, which meant adults would no longer be exempt from the criminal charge of improper entry because they had minor children; as a result, immigration agents ripped children from their parent’s arms at the border and housed them separately.
Provost’s tenure was a particularly fatal stretch for children, with four dying in the agency’s care in a six-month span. Provost also came under fire for her membership in a xenophobic Facebook group populated with past and current Border Patrol officers. Members of the group frequently shared jokes and memes that made light of migrant deaths, first reported in a 2019 ProPublica investigation.
Provost, who retired from the Border Patrol in January 2020, could not be reached for comment.
In a statement to Reveal, an Endeavors spokesperson said, “Provost served as director of the Pecos facility from its opening in March 2021 through May 2021,” adding that “she has continued to serve as a contractor with Endeavors on a variety of projects.”
Endeavors also stated that Provost served under Democrats and Republicans through four administrations and simply did her job during Trump’s zero-tolerance policy at the border, implementing family separation “in accordance with the law.”
Setareh Ghandehari, an advocacy director for Detention Watch Network, described news of Provost’s involvement at the Pecos shelter as “appalling.”
“Carla Provost, who was complicit in tearing hundreds of children apart from the loving care of their families, cannot be trusted with caring for children,” she said.
Provost became a Border Patrol agent in 1995 and worked her way up the ranks to acting chief by 2017. She secured the permanent post the following year.
During the year and a half Provost was the permanent Border Patrol chief, at least four migrant children – one as young as 2 years old – died after being apprehended by her agents. Although the agency doesn’t maintain a comprehensive list of deaths in custody, advocacy groups documenting deaths show the spate under Provost’s tenure was unusual: The Southern Border Communities Coalition’s tracker lists one child’s death in custody from 2010 until Provost became chief in August 2018.
The inspector general’s office at the Department of Homeland Security investigated the May 2019 death of Carlos Hernández Vásquez, a 16-year-old from Guatemala who died at the Border Patrol’s station in Weslaco, Texas, during Provost’s tenure. The watchdog found that the Border Patrol “did not conduct regular and frequent physical checks” as required by national detention standards and that an agent falsified hourly welfare checks.
Federal and state prosecutors declined to pursue any charges, saying there weren’t criminal violations or criminal intent in the child’s death. A medical examiner ruled Hernández Vásquez’s cause of death was H1N1 flu and bacterial/staph infections.
His death was among the tragedies that members of the “I’m 10-15” Facebook group made light of. Provost acknowledged being a member of the xenophobic Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents after her membership was reported by The Intercept. Her few comments in the group were innocuous, the media organization reported. But those posted by other members included obscene edited images of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and posts questioning whether the drowning death of a migrant father and his 23-month-old daughter was staged.
Endeavors said in a statement that Provost left and self-reported her membership in the Facebook group and publicly condemned its inappropriate posts, and that Customs and Border Protection found no evidence to support an administrative action against her.
She retired after 25 years with the Border Patrol.
“As I start my next chapter in life, know that I’ll always support the men & women of the Patrol,” Provost tweeted.
A No-Bid Contract for an Emergency Migrant Shelter
Soon after President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, an increased number of migrant children – previously barred from seeking asylum – made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. In response, the Biden administration contracted with Endeavors and other organizations to run 14 emergency shelters, some in cavernous convention centers or military bases.
Endeavors worked most prominently in recent years with unhoused veterans. The company declined to answer questions about whether it sheltered unaccompanied children before 2021.
Like all emergency shelters for migrant children, the Pecos shelter is not licensed by the state, which means it is not subject to the kind of health and safety oversight that most shelters for children face.
The federal government’s no-bid contract with Endeavors caught the attention of Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. It came two months after Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, a former ICE official and appointee of the Biden transition team, was hired as a senior director. Lorenzen-Strait referred questions to Endeavors, which didn’t respond to a question about the timing of the contract.
“(T)he size of the contracts awarded to (Endeavors), the manner in which they were awarded, that firm’s lack of equivalent experience, the timing of Mr. Lorenzen-Straight’s (sic) hiring, and his connections to the Biden administration combine to raise serious concerns of potential impropriety,” Congress members wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
The department didn’t respond to the letter; a Republican committee aide said in a statement that the party remains committed to holding the agency accountable.
The shelters are contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services. Its chief operation is social services, while the Department of Homeland Security and its agencies, including the Border Patrol, focuses on enforcement. And Provost maintains ties to the border enforcement community.
In August 2021, the Border Security Expo, a conference, trade exhibition and sharpshooter demonstration focused on perceived threats to national security, announced Provost as the group’s new advisory board chair.
In March, Provost kicked off the opening panel at the expo, largely featuring state and federal law enforcement officials.
Provost is listed as the former Border Patrol chief, with no mention of her recent work for Endeavors. None of the events listed on the schedule were focused on migrant children.
Clarification, June 2, 2022: This story has been updated to clarify that the Department of Health and Human Services says federal rules prohibit it from controlling contractors’ hiring and firing decisions.
This story was edited by Kate Howard, Andrew Donohue and Sumi Aggarwal and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
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