- Aura Bogadoimmigration reporter for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
A major U.S. military and CIA contractor has been detaining dozens of migrant children inside a vacant Phoenix office building with dark windows, no kitchen and only a few toilets, according to a new investigation by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Reveal learned about what some are calling the “black site” for migrant children after one local resident filmed children in sweatsuits being led into the building. The building was leased in March by MVM, a defense contractor that Reveal reports has received nearly $250 million in contracts to transport immigrant children since 2014. We speak with the lead reporter on this story, Aura Bogado, in Oakland, California. She is the immigration reporter for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
AMY GOODMAN: In San Diego, California, a federal judge will hold a hearing today on whether to delay Tuesday’s deadline that mandated the reunification of all children under the age of 5 whom the Trump administration separated from their parents at the border. Under court order, Justice Department released the names of more than a hundred children under 5 who were separated from their parents. The Trump administration is claiming it needs more time to match children with their parents, including at least 19 parents the Trump administration has deported already. The American Civil Liberties Union says less than half the separated children under the age of 5 will be reunited by Tuesday. According to Judge Dana Sabraw’s ruling, all separated children must be reunited with their parents by July 26. Last week, HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters there are nearly 3,000 separated children in government custody, a figure almost a thousand children more than the 2,047 his department released over a week ago.
Well, for more on the unfolding crisis of separated families, we turn to a new investigation by Reveal exposing how a major U.S. military and CIA contractor has been detaining dozens of migrant children inside a vacant Phoenix office building with dark windows, no kitchen and only a few toilets. The building was leased in March by MVM, a military contractor Reveal reports has received nearly $250 million in contracts to transport immigrant children since 2014. One local resident filmed children in sweatsuits being led into the building, with one so young that they had to be carried. After Reveal published its story Friday, policymakers spoke out against the facility, and donations of toys were left out front in a gift bag with the words “stay strong” along with a large dollhouse.
For more, we go to Oakland, California, where we’re joined by the lead reporter on the story, Aura Bogado, immigration reporter for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Aura, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about what you found.
AURA BOGADO: Thanks, Amy. A few weeks ago, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that the children who were being taken from their parents at the border would be placed in “foster care or whatever.” Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting has been laser-focused on what that “whatever” means. Although we don’t know for a fact that these children were indeed separated from their parents at the border, we believe that may be the case because, as you mentioned, some of the children are so young that they don’t look like they’re old enough to walk. I know, from my many years as an immigration reporter, that children who do cross the desert or who do turn themselves in at a port of entry tend to be teenagers, sometimes preteens. We’ve never seen toddlers who are unaccompanied. And so, for that reason, we believe that these children may have been separated from their parents. And now we have a better idea of what that “whatever” may mean.
In this case, a contractor, a private contractor with heavy ties to the CIA—in fact, it was founded by ex-CIA secret agents—had an office in which neighbors described dozens of children going in over the span of several weeks and never leaving until three weeks later. We were able to obtain video of 32 of those children entering that facility. And this is in an unmarked, unmapped, unlicensed, largely vacant office building right there in Phoenix.
AMY GOODMAN: Aura, you tweeted, “This story was made possible by a tipster, Lianna Dunlap. She was brave enough to take video and ask questions. Our team worked nonstop for a week. We found the contractor. ICE had to issue a comment.” I want to turn to Lianna Dunlap in a recent Reveal interview, as she describes her response to seeing white vans filled with immigrant children pulling up to the vacant office building behind her house June 4th. The next day, she videotaped more children being led into the building. Dunlap says she never saw children leave or go outside during the next three weeks.
LIANNA DUNLAP: A lot of times I would just stare out my window, waiting to see something, and—or late at night, I would go out in my backyard and just look at that window, waiting to see if I could hear anything or see any lights. It’s just like, if there are kids in there and they have those windows blocked off, they’re not even seeing sunlight. And how long have they had them in there? There’s been times where I drive by and I just start crying, because, you know, it’s right behind my house, and I don’t know—and I think that’s the worst part, is not knowing what’s actually going on in there, and just hoping that they’re OK.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lianna Dunlap, your tipster, Aura Bogado. Some have described this as a “black site” for migrant children.
AURA BOGADO: Yes. I was just texting with Lianna a few minutes before this segment. You know, Lianna was concerned the first time that she saw this happen. I saw texts that she exchanged with her husband on the 4th of June, and she said, “Something very weird is going on. I think the children are being trafficked.” She subsequently takes video. She confronted workers. She talked to her friends about it. She called the police, because one of the workers sort of casually said, like, “Well, if you have a problem with it, call the police.” And so she did so. We spoke with the Phoenix Police Department, who did confirm that they responded to a call. However, when they found out that this was an ICE contractor that was involved, they apparently didn’t continue, or maybe even start, an investigation.
So Lianna had turned to local media and then turned to us, I think, from—really, from a moment of frustration and wanting to really know what happened with these children, what’s going on here. Our team of investigators got on the story right away. I was on the next flight to Phoenix the following morning, and I went straight from the airport to Lianna’s house. And that office is indeed right in front of her house. And then, back at the office, we had our great team of researchers and reporters really start digging into this property, the history of its property.
We found that in March, MVM, this private contractor, signed a 5-year lease. This is one month before Attorney General Jeff Sessions announces “zero[-tolerance]” policy. In June, when we start hearing reports of separated—of children being separated at the border, that’s when Lianna and her neighbors first started seeing children. They didn’t know—they told me that they had no idea that these could have been immigrant children. They thought maybe these were just children who were being trafficked for some kind of work and who were being abused. And they then see the reports of immigrant children. You know, President Trump then cancels his own policy of separating families at the border on the 20th of June. Two days later is when neighbors report seeing all of those vanloads of children leaving. Some neighbors estimate that it was around 40 children who left that facility on the 22nd of June. Others—Lianna tells me that it was as many as 80 kids who were in there.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, she calls the police, because she’s concerned that this—whatever this entity was at the time, they were engaged in human trafficking. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed to you, to Reveal, that it had entered into a contract with MVM. ICE spokesperson Jennifer Elzea said the company is, quote, “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.” Meanwhile, a statement posted on MVM’s website June 18th reads, “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.” Talk more about what you understand is this company ICE has contracted with and the amount of money they have gotten.
AURA BOGADO: MVM, when we first contacted them, they stated what you just read: “We’re not in the business of providing shelter or any kind of housing for children at all whatsoever.” As it became more clear to them that we had a lot of evidence that many children were being detained for some period of time in this office building, they said, “Well, this is a temporary holding place.” That’s the term that MVM has used to describe it, a “temporary holding place.”
ICE didn’t respond immediately. I believe any reporter who works on immigration sort of takes that as a given: ICE responds when it wants to respond and when it feels a need to respond. They eventually did respond, Jennifer Elzea then telling me that, under its contract, this private contractor, MVM, is allowed to have children in an office setting used as a waiting area. But, you know, when you think about, a waiting area tends to be—in my experience, it has always been an area in which I wait, immediately before I speak with perhaps a DMV worker or perhaps before I immediately board my flight. A waiting area doesn’t tend to be a way station, a detention area. As you said, some people have described this as a black site. And I think that speaks to the unmarked, unlicensed nature of this office building. This is a plain office building.
AMY GOODMAN: You looked inside the Phoenix office building where they’re being detained, and published a photograph of what you saw: a child’s booster seat, box labeled “baby shampoo,” inflatable mattress, medication schedule.
AURA BOGADO: We didn’t publish the medication schedule, because there is some, what we believe to be, private information about at least one of the children who was being held there, likely a lot more. We see some names on there. And there is a medication schedule. It has a partial A number. That’s an identifier that ICE and other immigration authorities use to track undocumented immigrants through its system. And it has a name, and it says, “Medication at 0900 hours”—I’m not sure how to say that in military time. That kind of medication schedule, that’s interesting, because as any of us who ever take medication on doctor’s orders know, that we need to take it, you know, once daily, twice daily. That’s something that indicates that perhaps children were there longer than just a few hours.
And even if children were only there for a few hours, the state of Arizona, they’re the ones who determine whether or not a place is a child care facility. The way that we described what we understood to be happening there to an Arizona Department of Health spokesperson, he said, well, he’s not familiar with this particular case. What we described would mean that it’s a child care center, and it’s not licensed for that. There hasn’t even been an application put in for that.
AMY GOODMAN: Aura, you got a copy of the Office of Refugee Resettlement Spanish-language video that parents are required to watch in order to reunify with their child. In the very first minute, it says to get a sponsor manual at a website. This is what happens.
OFFICE OF REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT VIDEO: … identificados en este video, por favor consulte el Manual del Patrocinador proveído por su encargado del caso. Usted también puedes descargar el Manual del Patrocinador, del sitio www. …
AMY GOODMAN: But that website they instruct parents to visit, you found the URL they gave is broken?
AURA BOGADO: That link has been broken for quite a long time. I don’t remember when it first went down, but it’s been several months, if not longer than a year. This video is available in English and Spanish. What we do know is that a lot of people who were separated from their children don’t speak either language. They’re indigenous peoples. And the video is not available in that language. This video is an outdated video, and it was made for sponsors in general, I believe some years ago. I’m guessing two or more years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: And it doesn’t—
AURA BOGADO: And that website is down.
AMY GOODMAN: And it doesn’t work. Finally—we just have 30 seconds—how are politicians responding, this issue of a black site of children in Phoenix, Arizona?
AURA BOGADO: There has been a lot of outrage on the part of lawmakers, on the part of policymakers, on the part of the community. There will be a press conference today directly in front of that office, and a lot of lawmakers have issued statements. We are working with a reporter in Phoenix who is going to bring us more about the fallout from our story.
AMY GOODMAN: Aura Bogado, I want to thank you for being with us, immigration reporter for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. We’ll link to your piece that you just broke, “Defense Contractor Detained Migrant Kids in Vacant Phoenix Office Building.”
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, human rights activist and attorney Jennifer Harbury.