Immigration

Exclusive: Immigrant kids held in second Phoenix office seen bathing in sinks

This screen grab from a video shows Immigrant children waiting outside a Phoenix office building in June. The building is the second location where defense contractor MVM Inc. detained children overnight in an office setting not licensed for child care. Credit: Bill Weaver

A defense contractor that held immigrant children overnight in a Phoenix office building operates a second office nearby, where a neighbor has seen immigrant children bathing themselves in bathroom sinks, Reveal has learned.

The company, MVM Inc., is the primary transportation contractor for the federal government’s court-ordered efforts to reunify families separated under President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy. On Sunday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement filed a plan of operations in federal court for the reunification of families whose children are ages 5 to 17. In it, the agency says it will “coordinate with MVM to dispatch” those families.

After Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting published a story about the company housing children overnight in a Phoenix office building, MVM acknowledged that it also houses minors overnight in a second office building nearby. That building is on 20th Street, less than a mile away.

From the outside, MVM’s 20th Street office shares some features with the other office on Osborn Road: a nondescript, unmarked one-level office with dark tinted windows. It’s surrounded by a concrete parking lot – with no area for outdoor play – and is on a busy street near the airport.

Bill Weaver, an insurance executive who used to lease the 20th Street space now occupied by MVM, told Reveal that for the past two years, he’s seen children from babies to teenagers come through the office.

“They operate six 12-passenger vans,” he said Monday, referring to MVM. Weaver shot several videos on his phone of the children outside the building the morning of June 11 and recently provided them to Reveal. They show about 20 boys of various ages being led by adults in front of his office window.

Weaver estimates MVM leases about 2,000 square feet of space in the building. He said that the space has no kitchen or shower but that the property’s owner offered to install showers at some point.

It also has no private bathroom. Instead, Weaver said, three office suites share a set of bathroom stalls and sinks. To bathe, he said, the children would use a pair of bathroom sinks. He said he’s seen it on multiple occasions.

Immigrant children in the custody of defense contractor MVM Inc. were seen multiple times bathing in these sinks in the shared bathroom of a Phoenix office building. Credit: Bill Weaver

“One time, I walked in and saw two kids washing themselves in their underwear in the sinks,” Weaver said. “MVM would throw away all their clothes and even throw away the brush they combed their hair with and then reclothe them in sweatsuits and Crocs.”

“That building was completely inappropriate for what they were doing,” he said.

After Reveal’s story about MVM detaining children at the Osborn Road office building, with no showers, kitchen or yard, state and local officials called for investigations into the company’s treatment of children. MVM signed a lease for the Osborn Road location in March – just before the Trump administration launched its short-lived family separation effort – and operated it for at least one month between May and June.

Over the weekend, Reveal asked an MVM spokesman whether children also were held at the second office on 20th Street.

“The statement I sent you on Wednesday is related to MVM’s entire Phoenix operations,” Joseph Arabit responded via email.

Arabit was referring to a statement the company made to Reveal last week acknowledging that children MVM transported under contract with ICE sometimes had stayed overnight at the office on Osborn Road.

Housing children overnight there violated the company’s own policies, Arabit said. A city councilwoman said the practice also violated city codes.

According to ICE, its contract with MVM allows the company to use its offices as “waiting areas” for children awaiting same-day transport. ICE has not responded to questions about whether holding children overnight violates MVM’s contract or whether those sites must be licensed as child care centers under state licensing laws.

MVM, a Virginia-based defense contractor, has received contracts worth up to $248 million to transport immigrant children since 2014, records show. The company, which once provided guards for CIA facilities in Iraq, was founded by three former Secret Service agents. One of its vice presidents is a former CIA special agent and former acting director of the U.S. Marshals Service.

The company has no child care center licenses in Arizona, and the governor has ordered a review. Any determination about whether MVM was operating an unlicensed child care center under state law would be made by the state Department of Health Services.

Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Vincent C. Lewis told Reveal that a service call was made on the morning of June 5 from the 20th Street MVM office address and routed to the fire department. The caller said a juvenile “had reportedly passed out,” Lewis said.

Shelly Jamison, assistant chief of the Phoenix Fire Department, told Reveal that her department dispatched an engine to the office, where first-responders found a 17-year-old girl who was awake. The department spent 15 minutes on-site and didn’t transport the girl off-site.

White transport vans believed to be used by defense contractor MVM Inc. sit outside a Phoenix office building. The building is the second office site where MVM acknowledges it detains children, including some overnight. Credit: Bill Weaver

On May 27, police responded to a call at the Osborn Road office. One of about 90 minors there that morning went missing. The MVM staffer who made the call estimated the teen’s age to be 16, but police say he is 17. The youth, who is from Honduras, was never found and is now officially a missing person, Lewis said.

MVM initially told Reveal that the Osborn Road office was used for temporary respite for children awaiting flights.

“These offices are not overnight housing facilities, per the contract with ICE,” ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said two weeks ago.

Elzea has not acknowledged that MVM detained children – some separated from their parents at the border – in its offices overnight. She’s also declined to state how many such locations the agency’s private contractors use in the transport of children.

“I have nothing further for you. I have made clear that we are looking into whether anything occurred that was outside the realm of our contract,” she told Reveal on Monday. “We will address any findings directly with the contractor.”

In interviews with Reveal, MVM has declined to say, other than these locations, whether and how many locations nationwide it operates where children are or have been detained.

On Thursday, MVM verified that it had “initiated the lease termination process” on its Osborn Road location. MVM’s office on 20th Street appears to remain in operation, and the company hasn’t commented on whether it will terminate its lease there as well.

Arabit also hasn’t told Reveal how many children MVM held overnight at either office or for how long.

Aura Bogado can be reached abogado@revealnews.orgFollow her on Twitter: @aurabogado.

To send information about immigration issues to Reveal, email border@revealnews.org.

Don't miss the next big story.

Brave investigations that change minds, laws and lives. Emailed directly to you.