A new complaint has surfaced, emphasizing just how dangerous conditions are for illegal immigrants, especially children, in at least one facility in Texas. Fort Bliss is being accused of child negligence when it comes to COVID response, as well as filthy conditions, overcrowding, lack of essentials such as underwear, and staff not qualified to work in children’s mental health.
According to the report by the Government Accountability Project, the virus was “widespread among children and eventually spread to many employees.” It claims children were not provided adequate masks and wearing them was not enforced, even though cases of coronavirus were rising. “Hundreds of children contracted COVID in the overcrowded conditions,” the report pointed out.
Whistleblowers Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold are federal employees who volunteered to work at the shelter after President Joe Biden increased staffing because of the massive increase in illegal migrants crossing the border. Pearlstein is the Director of Arbitration and of the Office of Shared Neutrals at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services. He worked between April and June 2021 at the facility. Reinhold is an attorney-advisor at the Social Security Administration and was at Fort Bliss for one month in May. Their complaints, outlined in the documentation, mirror several other grievances from previous staffers.
Pearlstein and Reinhold alleged that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) instructed them to “downplay a coronavirus outbreak amongst migrant children” earlier in the year. According to the complaint:
“Every effort was made to downplay the degree of COVID infection at the site, and the size of the outbreak was deliberately kept under wraps. At a ‘town hall’ meeting with detailees, a senior U.S. Public Health Service manager was asked and refused to say how many were infected because ‘if that graph [of infections] is going to The Washington Post every day, it’s the only thing we’ll be dealing with and politics will take over, perception will take over, and we’re about reality, not perception.’ All the manager would acknowledge is that several children had to be hospitalized.”
The dormitory at Fort Bliss housed around 1,200 children. There were about ten tents that held between 500 and 1,000 children during May and June 2021. Filth was prevalent. According to a Chenega senior manager, “I’ve been into one [tent], one time, and I was like, yeah, I’m not going back there.” The manager continued, explaining, “They’re filthy. They’re dirty. There’s food on the floor. There’s wet spots all over the place. The beds are dirty.”
The Government Accountability Project claimed that dirty laundry accumulated and “the situation was far worse because of the dust that settled everywhere after El Paso area summer dust storms.”
Private Contractors Control the Facility
The dirty conditions and spread of COVID weren’t the only concerns reported by the agency. The whistleblowers complained that private contractors were in charge, and most of those staff members had no experience working with children. The contractors handled the nearly $1 billion in contracts that the federal government paid to operate the facility: Servpro, Chenega Corporation, and Rapid Deployment Inc. The report claimed, “like Servpro, it appears that these contractors were hired without going through any bidding process such as that ordinarily required under the Federal Acquisition Regulations applicable to federal contracts.”
As a result, workers without any background in child psychology interviewed more than 5,000 children to see if they needed additional attention or if they suffered abuse or had been exposed to sex or labor trafficking. They were also responsible for acting as counselors when children needed support for depression, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts. Pearlstein reported that in one particular case, a boy complained of being depressed but the worker reportedly told the child that “he had nothing to complain about and that, in fact, he should feel grateful for all he was being given.”
The whistleblowers said the contractors consistently gave children false hopes of being able to return to their family members, only to “pull them back at the last minute, even taking children out of lines for buses and off airplanes before takeoff.” As an example, the report described a specific incident:
“In our July 7 letter, we disclosed one horrific incident when 48 children who had been told they were going home were pulled out of the bus line and sent back to their tents. Our clients now report this was not an isolated incident. On multiple occasions, groups of children who were told they were going home and had already arrived at the airport for a flight out, were suddenly told it was a mistake and brought back to the facility. Indeed, on at least two occasions, children who had already boarded airplanes were forced to get off.”
Now, with the Delta variant swarming across the nation, some officials are considering renewed mask mandates. As Liberty Nation reported, not all immigrants are being tested or inoculated against the virus but are still being released upon communities. On Saturday, July 31, Fort Bliss enacted mandated masks for the area because of “substantial” virus risk. While the immigrant facility is being accused of not taking appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of disease, Maj. Gen. Sean Bernabe wrote in a memo that “El Paso County is considered an area of substantial community transmission for Covid-19.”
Read more from Kelli Ballard.