Border Report

EXCLUSIVE: Contractors for border wall, child migrant shelter behind COVID-19 facilities in South Texas

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HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — A for-profit company that has won several lucrative border wall construction contracts from the Trump administration on the Southwest border, and a nonprofit company that has operated migrant youth detention centers have both been selected by the State of Texas to oversee construction and care of two COVID-19 field hospitals.

Both facilities are being paid for with federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act. 

The Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) told Border Report that the nonprofit company BCFS Health and Human Services has completed the set up and conversion of the McAllen Convention Center into an emergency overflow facility for coronavirus patients. The San Antonio-based company, which has operated controversial emergency shelters for unaccompanied migrant youths, also is overseeing the administration of care of all patients and medical teams brought to the McAllen facility in this COVID-19 plagued region.

The converted convention center accepted its first patients on Tuesday afternoon shortly after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott toured the new facility. On Thursday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said there were only four patients but 48 beds set up.

Workers employed by BCFS, which was hired by the state of Texas, install material to convert the McAllen Convention Center into a step-down field hospital for COVID-19 patients in South Texas, which opened on Aug. 4. (Courtesy Photos)

The McAllen Convention Center has the capacity to hold a total of 250 patients, TDEM Chief Nim Kidd told media Tuesday.

“We hope this facility will provide some relief,” Kidd said. “This is a machine that runs. We have over 7,000 persons assigned to this incident right now.”

As part of regional response, Kidd and Abbott also announced that another field hospital site was being opened about 40 miles away in Harlingen, Texas.

The Harlingen facility opened Wednesday and was built and is managed by SLSCO Ltd. The for-profit company is based in Galveston, Texas, and since 2018 has received over half a billion dollars in federal contracts to construct several sections of the border wall in South Texas and southern California. This includes border wall currently being built south of the Texas towns of Donna and Mission, and segments in Calexico, Tecate and Imperial Beach, Calif., according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, right, gets a tour of the border wall that was being built south of Donna, Texas, on Nov. 21, 2019. The section is still under construction to date and the company building it also has converted a convention hall in Harlingen, Texas, into a COVID-19 field hospital with CARES Act funds from the state. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Harlingen Health Director Josh Ramirez on Thursday told Border Report that SLSCO has converted the 13,000-square-foot Casa de Amistad convention hall into a secure COVID-19 treatment facility for recovering patients who are referred by local area hospitals, similar to coronavirus field hospitals that the company has built in New York City and elsewhere.

“They have a team of medical staff that also went to New York and they’re here as well and they’re contracted through the state Emergency Management,” Ramirez said. “This pandemic has put a tremendous strain on hospitals. We’re at 100% capacity at some of our hospitals.”

This pandemic has put a tremendous strain on hospitals. We’re at 100% capacity at some of our hospitals.”

Harlingen Health Director Josh Ramirez

This week the South Texas region topped 1,000 deaths from COVID-19. Cameron County has had over 15,564 cases of coronavirus and 324 deaths, the county reported Wednesday. Hidalgo County has had 743 deaths and 18,699 cases, as of Wednesday. That prompted Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez to extend mandatory shelter-in-place orders on Thursday through Aug. 19, including an overnight curfew for all adults.

“It is up to us to help protect our most vulnerable populations,” Cortez said.

But while most residents agree that extraordinary measures are needed to battle the pandemic in this hard-hit border region right now, some told Border Report that they questioned the state hiring companies that have contributed to anti-immigrant sentiment. Others question the use of CARES Act funds for companies that already receive lucrative federal contracts in the border regions.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas (Courtesy Photo)

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat and outspoken opponent of the border wall whose district includes parts of Hidalgo and Cameron counties, on Thursday told Border Report, “Obviously we object to the hiring of anyone to build any portion of the wall, but I’m not familiar with the state process for hiring a company to open the medical facility at the Casa de Amistad. Assuming there is not some underlying corrupt practice involved, the state has the discretion to award those contracts.”

Border Report has asked TDEM for the contract amounts awarded to BCFS and SLSCO, and for the names and amounts of all other contracts that also placed bids to oversee these COVID-19 field hospitals in South Texas. This story will be updated if information is received.

According to the New York Times, SLSCO was the only organization that responded to calls from New York officials to build a hospital in seven days and run it. The hospital, which was erected outside the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, cost $52 million and ended up treating only 70 patients, the Times reported, adding that the final bill could top $100 million when pay for doctors and nurses, among other things, is factored on.

Abbott said Tuesday that both facilities will be paid for with federal CARES Act funds that were sent to the state to mitigate the pandemic. Congress gave Texas $11.2 billion to distribute under the CARES Act. 

Abbott did not specify exact contract costs awarded nor duration of the contracts. He did say the facilities would be operational as long as needed. Kidd said that the state also would apply for FEMA relief funds to hopefully pick up 75% of costs.

Scott Nicol, an environmentalist from McAllen who opposes the border wall and incarceration of unaccompanied migrant youth at detention facilities said companies that perform these services should be considered “pariahs” on society.

“Contracts for medical facilities should go to companies with a social conscience, not ones with a track record of tearing apart communities and ecosystems,” Nicol said.

SLSCO had annual revenue of $13.96 million last year, Dun & Bradstreet reports. The company’s website boasts several border wall projects as well as a YouTube video showing the setup of a field hospital they built in New York in one week that transformed the Brooklyn Cruise Ship Terminal into a 630-bed facility across the East River from Manhattan earlier this year when the city was the epicenter of COVID-19 cases in the country. The facility never opened, according to New York Times.

BCFS is a Christian-based nonprofit organization, formerly known as Baptist Children’s Home Ministries, which built and operated the controversial migrant youth detention facility in Carrizo Springs, southwest of San Antonio. The 1,300-bed facility opened June 30, 2019, and closed down less than a month later, which federal officials said at the time was due to a lack of need. Nevertheless, the company had a contract of $308 million to run the facility through January 2020, The Washington Post reported.

This undated file photo provided by the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, shows the shelter used to house unaccompanied migrant children in Tornillo, Texas. The nonprofit group running what was once the nation’s largest detention camp for migrant children confirmed it is closing down the facility and the last kids left on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (HHS’ Administration for Children and Families via AP, File)

BCFS also ran and operated a facility in Tornillo in West Texas outside of El Paso, which also was shut down.

Joshua Rubin

Aside from running the McAllen Convention Center field hospital, BCFS also has been contracted by the State of Texas to provide emergency services in San Antonio, according to the Rivard Report.

Joshua Rubin, a co-founder of the advocacy group Witness at the Border, spent three months picketing outside the Tornillo facility to advocate for its closure. On Thursday, he told Border Report that he did not believe a company that was in the business of mistreating children should be in the business of treating coronavirus patients.

Rubin’s organization spent several months picketing outside a judicial tent city set up at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas, where migrants who are forced to remain in Mexico under the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols Program during the duration of their U.S. immigration court proceedings.

What they did in Tornillo was dreadful.”

Joshua Rubin, Witness at the Border co-founder

“They charged a lot of money. They make a lot of money. The nonprofit thing is a bit of a hoax,” Rubin said via phone from his home in New York City. “What they did in Tornillo was dreadful.”

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