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A Look At The Business Of Immigrant Detention

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The political scandal over the separation of migrant children from their families has also shed light on an important fact - the warehousing of migrant children has over the years become a billion-dollar business for a handful of government contractors operating all over the country. We heard from one such contractor earlier this week, Southwest Key Programs. They're a nonprofit running shelters for immigrant children in federal custody. But the explosion in the number of children in federal custody means many more contractors will be under scrutiny.

Here to talk more is Katie Benner of The New York Times. Welcome to the program.

KATIE BENNER: Nice to be here.

CORNISH: When did this business grow, this business of operating shelters for migrant children?

BENNER: Well, we have to go back in time a little bit. So the immigration surge across the border began to pick up in around 2014 and 2015. And at that point in time, the Obama administration struggled, as many administrations before it had, to figure out what to do. And one of the decisions that the Obama administration made at that time was to expand the detention of immigrant families, opening up facilities along the border where women and young children could be held for longer periods of time while they waited a chance to have some sort of case processed.

CORNISH: Your reporting finds that there are a range of groups involved in this business. Who are we talking about? Who's kind of gotten in the game of housing children in federal custody?

BENNER: So we do see a range of contractors. Some of them are religiously affiliated organizations or emergency management agencies like Catholic Charities. Others are nonprofit groups like Southwest Key or BCFS. And then you have a small network of private prison companies that are operating family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania, and those facilities could expand under the new presidential directive because we do need more family facilities.

CORNISH: Your article points out just how much money we're talking about. So Southwest Key, for example, they're the ones who had converted that Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville, Texas, that people have been talking about. They won at least $955 million in federal contracts since 2015. But here's what Alexia Rodriguez - she is an executive with the company - told us this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALEXIA RODRIGUEZ: We're getting paid to do more work, right? So back in 2010, we served approximately 500 children a day. We are now serving approximately 5,000 children a day. So we're getting paid more under our contract, but it's in direct correlation to the numbers being served. It's not because we raised our prices or things like that.

CORNISH: I want to put that to you, Katie Benner, 'cause are we essentially arguing here that there's something nefarious going on simply because of the size of this economy?

BENNER: No, I don't think that we should say that the size of the economy means that something nefarious is going on. I do think that it is a reflection of the fact that we have seen a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the border seasonally into the United States, especially from countries like El Salvador and Honduras where people are fleeing gang violence. They are fleeing unrest. And they really feel there is no other place to go. We have not been able to figure out how to deal with these surges - unaccompanied minors.

CORNISH: What questions do you have now that the Trump administration plans to detain families together, possibly indefinitely?

BENNER: So one of the interesting things about the family detention policy that is being implemented is, will we need more facilities? Will this business grow even greater? Will it become even larger? Will we need more beds for families? Right now it seems like that will probably happen. It does not seem likely that ICE detention centers can easily house families. As part of its request, the government has asked a judge in California to please waive some of the requirements necessary for facilities that house children so that they can be housed in places like ICE detention centers.

CORNISH: Katie Benner of The New York Times, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BENNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.