A major U.S. defense contractor quietly detained dozens of immigrant children inside a vacant Phoenix office building with dark windows, no kitchen and only a few toilets during three weeks of the Trump administration’s family separation effort, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has learned.
Videos shot by an alarmed neighbor show children dressed in sweatsuits being led – one so young she was carried – into the 3,200-square-foot building in early June. The building is not licensed by Arizona to hold children, and the contractor, MVM Inc., has claimed publicly that it does not operate “shelters or any other type of housing” for children.
Defending the administration’s policy to separate families at the border in a May interview with NPR, White House chief of staff John Kelly promised: “The children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”
Whether or not these children were taken from their parents, that “whatever” for them was the vacant building tucked away in a midtown Phoenix neighborhood. It is not listed among shelters operating through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement or on the state child care licensing website.
There are new cameras on the building, extra locks on the doors and a paper shredder bin directly outside the building’s side door. Neighbor Lianna Dunlap’s videos show workers pulling up in white vans and leading dazed children into the building. When she asked questions, she said the workers responded with silence or terse answers.
“There’s been times where I drive by and I just start crying because, you know, it’s right behind my house,” said Dunlap, her voice wavering. “I don’t know and I think that’s the worst part – not knowing what’s actually going on in there and just hoping that they’re OK.”
The building was leased in March by MVM, a Virginia-based defense contractor that has received contracts worth up to $248 million to transport immigrant children since 2014, records show. The company, which once provided guards for CIA facilities in Iraq, was founded by three former Secret Service agents. One of its vice presidents is a former CIA special agent and former acting director of the U.S. Marshals Service.
Company President and CEO Kevin Marquez signed a five-year lease for the building March 9, one month before U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Reveal has confirmed that the lease says the building is not allowed to be used for sleeping or cooking and can be used only for “general business office purposes.” It also prohibits tenants from making “disturbing noises,” including whistling and singing, that would “interfere with occupants of this or neighboring buildings.”
When Reveal asked MVM about the Phoenix office building, the company initially pointed to its earlier statement that it does not operate housing for immigrant children. After learning that neighbors had recorded video of children entering the building, an MVM spokesperson said the building “is not a shelter or a child care facility. … It’s a temporary holding place” for children being flown out of the Phoenix airport to other locations.
Asked whether the children were kept there overnight, the spokesperson said the building is intended to hold them for a few hours before flights but was unsure how long children actually ended up staying.
An inflatable mattress, a box marked “baby shampoo,” a medication schedule and other items spotted inside the building last week indicate that children could have been held there for an extended period. Dunlap and other neighbors say they never saw the children taken outside to play. They watched as pallets of water and boxes of food were brought in.
Three weeks later, the neighbors say they saw five unmarked white vans that hold about 12 passengers each pull up to take children away. It was June 22, two days after Trump signed an executive order to end his administration’s policy of separating families.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed to Reveal that it had entered into a contract with MVM. ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said the company “is authorized to use their office spaces as waiting areas for minors awaiting same-day transportation between U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody and U.S. Health and Human Services custody.”
Dunlap, a 25-year-old teaching assistant for children with autism, lives next door to the office building. When she saw vanloads of dark-haired kids speaking Spanish being ushered out of vans and into the previously vacant building for a second day in early June, she grabbed her cellphone and started recording.
“That’s when I was like, ‘OK, they’re definitely doing something they shouldn’t be doing,’ ” Dunlap said. “It looked very secretive.”
At first, Dunlap worried that the children were being trafficked. Then, as news of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy began to spread, she thought they could be among the thousands taken from their parents at the border.
Other neighbors became aware of the situation as well. And they, too, were upset.
Kristen Brown, a behavioral therapist who lives next to Dunlap with her 2-year-old son, was concerned about the lack of space and facilities for children inside the MVM office building.
“My kid has the ability to run around and play, and there are 40 kids in that place that I don’t know what you’re doing with,” she recalled telling one on-site worker. “That, as a mom, it doesn’t feel right.”
Dunlap said she never saw any children leave the building until nearly three weeks after they arrived. When Dunlap tried to take video of that departure, she said workers spotted her watching from her kitchen window and blocked her view with vehicles. She said she watched children’s feet as they filed out of the building.
That’s when Dunlap and her husband, Juan Carlos Larios, confronted the adults, one of whom suggested they could call police. So they did.
Phoenix police Sgt. Vince Lewis, public information officer for the department, told Reveal that when police arrived at the building, “ICE confirmed that it (MVM) was contracted to perform that transport.”
Since dozens of children were removed from the office building two weeks ago, the neighbors have observed more deliveries of water and quizzed workers about what’s going on. Dunlap says one worker told her that they were fixing the air conditioning.
With temperatures in Phoenix hitting 111 degrees in June, Dunlap said she hoped the air conditioning was working when the children were inside.
Brown asked a worker what kind of business the employees were conducting. The business of transportation, she was told.
“Transporting what?” Brown asked.
“Humans,” the worker replied.
We’re not ‘housing’ kids, MVM says
MVM was awarded an $8 million five-year contract in 2017 to “maintain readiness” and provide “emergency support services” to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency in charge of housing unaccompanied immigrant children in shelters and other facilities across the country.
A statement posted on the company’s website June 18 states: “MVM has tremendous empathy for the families and children arriving at the U.S. border. … The current services MVM provides consist of transporting undocumented families and unaccompanied children to Department of Health and Human Services designated facilities – we have not and currently do not operate shelters or any other type of housing for minors.”
By the time that statement was posted, MVM had signed the lease for the Phoenix office building and begun taking children there.
ICE’s Elzea also said the office is not an overnight housing facility: “The offices are outfitted to provide minors awaiting same-day transport with a more comfortable and private atmosphere than they might otherwise have at a public transportation hub.”
But even shorter-term accommodations for children could trigger a different requirement: licensing by the state of Arizona.
The office building is not licensed as a child care facility, according to Chris Minnick, a spokesman for the Arizona Health Services Department. Licenses are required for any place “where children are unaccompanied by a parent or guardian on a regular basis for periods of less than 24 hours a day other than the child’s home,” he said.
When told that ICE claims children are being held in the building for at least several hours before boarding flights, Minnick said: “I’m not on the legal side of this, but from what I understand, that would fall under that definition.”
Minnick said the department had no complaints on file for operation of an unlicensed child care facility at that address. But a license would require qualified staff, outdoor play areas, age-appropriate toys, smoke detectors, a food establishment permit and other government health and safety inspections.
Whether a facility must be licensed is a determination made by the state health department. State law requires facilities found to be operating without a license to shut down within 10 days of receiving notice or face criminal prosecution. Operating without a child care license is a misdemeanor in Arizona.
The MVM spokesperson would not answer questions about whether the Phoenix office building should be licensed as a child care center. The spokesperson also would not say how many other facilities like it the company operates nationwide. Elzea, the ICE spokeswoman, also would not estimate how many temporary detention facilities for children operate nationwide under agency contracts with MVM or other companies.
Neighbor Kristen Brown says a worker told her that the company has another location, but she said the worker would not share its address for fear of losing her job. The worker indicated that children would be returning to the Phoenix office building near Brown’s house.
Brown said she has been upset by news of children “being ripped away from their parents” at the border, but watching immigrant children being shuffled into the office next door “is a whole new level of upsetting.”
MVM came under fire recently after it posted jobs for “bilingual youth care workers” at the height of the controversy over family separation.
Today, the company’s website states: “At the direction of the company’s leadership, we have removed job postings related to readiness operations under the current zero tolerance policy.”
But part-time MVM job opportunities for Phoenix-based bilingual travel youth care workers remain active. “You will make it your mission to provide humble care and service to unaccompanied children and teens, while you are accompanying them on domestic flights and via ground transportation to shelters all over the country,” the posting reads.
MVM is among a handful of large defense contractors that operate in a lucrative, shadowy business in which former intelligence officers could be vying for private security jobs or running prisons in war zones one day and managing transportation for immigrant children the next.
The company’s employees have provided protection for former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Guantanamo Bay Migrant Operations Center. According to federal records, MVM is listed as a “Hispanic American Owned Business,” a designation that can give potential contractors a leg up in the bidding process.
The company has been awarded contracts worth $1.5 billion since 2007 from government clients including law enforcement agencies such as ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration; the National Institutes of Health; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the Smithsonian Institution.
While it has kept a lower profile than some defense contractors, MVM has not escaped controversy. Lawsuits have alleged gender discrimination and national origin discrimination. In August 2008, the CIA curtailed its contract with MVM after the company failed to provide a sufficient number of armed guards.
Families splintered apart, by government and by storms
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Senior Data Editor Michael Corey contributed to this story. It was edited by Ziva Branstetter and Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Aura Bogado can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Ziva Branstetter can be reached at email@example.com and Vanessa Swales can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter: @aurabogado, @ZivaBranstetter and @Vanessa_Swales.