Soul searching for Latino contractors in Trump era

Unaccompanied migrant children at an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) funded shelter in Bristow, Virginia, a facility that serves teenage boys and girls as well as young kids
AFP

New York (AFP) – Outcry over revelations of confused migrant toddlers being stripped from their parents on the US-Mexico border has shone a spotlight on one sector of the immigration debate that usually manages to stay obscure: government contractors.

Many of the small children end up at shelters run by outside groups under contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

One Latino-owned private contractor MVM suddenly found itself struggling to perform damage control following revelations it was gearing up to work in shelters with migrant children separated from their families.

The story quickly blew up on social media, causing MVM to remove job postings for bilingual child counselors, education managers and other posts at shelters — while stating that its role in President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” debacle had been misunderstood.

The episode underscores a dilemma facing government contractors as the Trump administration embarks on an immigration policy program that critics view as racist and cruel.

National and local Latino business groups have long viewed the $500 billion US government contracting business as a good bet for companies, holding workshops on how to be certified by the federal government, prepare applications and manage contracts.

But Latinos who submitted proposals in early 2017 to build Trump’s giant wall on the southern US border with Mexico received a harsh reception from many in the community.

The international outrage over the practice of splitting migrant children from their detained parents during legal proceedings inflamed the debate once more.

On Wednesday, Trump announced that he was ending the separation policy, but US officials have sent mixed messages about how the new policy will work — and the military said Thursday it will prepare to house up to 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on its bases.

– Working for ICE –

Founded by Marquez and two other former secret service agents in 1979, MVM has 2,500 employees and has held contracts with more than 20 federal agencies, ranging from the Pentagon to the Smithsonian. 

The company won a contract worth up to $200 million from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement from 2017 to 2022 to provide translation, transcription and interpretation services. 

Joe Arabit, director of homeland security and public safety, said the company’s work with unaccompanied migrant children stems from a 2014 ICE contract to transport undocumented kids and families to US-designated facilities.

“We have not and currently do not operate shelters or any other type of housing for minors,” Arabit said in an email. “While these children and families are in our care, our priority is ensuring they are safe and treated with dignity and compassion.”

MVM as of last week had posted an opening for a case management supervisor to “be part of a highly capable team to run a shelter and all surrounding operations for the temporary care and transport of unaccompanied children.” 

The position was one of several listed in Homestead, Florida “in anticipation of a contract award,” according to listings that had been posted. 

But the company removed the jobs earlier this week prior to Trump’s Wednesday announcement.

“At the direction of the company’s leadership, we have removed job postings related to readiness operations under the current zero tolerance policy,” Arabit said. 

“MVM has not pursued any new contracts associated with undocumented families and children since the implementation of the current policy.”

– Unease over policies –

Michel Zajur, chief executive at the Virginia Hispanic Chamber, said his group had been caught off guard by the separations debate.

“We’ve had discussions about immigration policies and discussions about a lot of the rhetoric, but it just seems like this has just come up the last month or so,” he said in an interview.

“We want our businesses to go after government contracts,” he said. “I think when you talk about the ethics of specifically separating kids from their parents, that’s a very extreme issue that I think a lot of people wouldn’t want to be part of.”

Zajur said he was surprised at the involvement of MVM in the controversy. MVM’s co-founder, Dario Marquez, has been on the chamber’s board and also served as chairman of the Hispanic College Fund.

“He’s one of the very generous (people), very much wanting to give back and is a big supporter of the community,” Zajur said. “I know this is not his ethics.”

Prior to Trump’s reversal, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce condemned his zero tolerance stance, saying “family separation violates the very notion of human decency, as well as the most basic ideals of our nation.”

But the group takes no position on whether members should work for the Trump administration — and plans to continue to offer workshops for members to “provide them with the skills needed to pursue federal contracts with agencies that they feel comfortable working with,” an official said.

“We do not discourage our members from seeking federal contracting opportunities for political reasons,” said Mary Gardner, manager of government affairs and policy at USHCC. 

“We do, however, aim to keep our members informed on relevant issues such as the injustices occurring on the US-Mexico border,” she said. 

“For that reason, it is unsurprising that some of our members may choose not to work with federal agencies like ICE.”

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