By late July, the 17-year-old Honduran teen and his 15-year-old sister had been held at the West Texas detention center for nearly two months.
Traveling north from a country hit hard by famine and organized crime, the siblings had crossed the Rio Grande into Texas near Eagle Pass on May 28. Once on the U.S. side, they were picked up by Border Patrol agents who took them to one of the agency’s ice-cold holding cells migrants call hieleras.
By June 1, the two teens had been moved to Pecos Emergency Intake Shelter, a detention center operated by San Antonio-based nonprofit Endeavors. The two were supposed to be released to family members within weeks, but as new faces came and went, their cases remained stuck in the process.
“I need to leave this place so that I can be with my sister and talk to her more,” the youth, whose name has been redacted, told an immigration advocate in a July 27 interview. “We both want to leave here as soon as possible. She is very sad that we are still here. All of her friends have left here already and she is the only one of her friends still here. My mom is also worried about us.”
Testimony from the teenager and others included in recent legal filings discuss the conditions at Pecos, a converted former housing site for energy workers in the West Texas oil patch. According to a July 12 report from immigration advocates citing federal data, more than 1,805 children were housed there at the time, 10 of them for three times longer than legally allowed.
As illegal border crossings skyrocketed in 2021, with federal statistics showing a four-year high of 1.5 million apprehensions so far this year, federal agencies such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) dealt with the influx by opening temporary detention sites.
At most of these sites, federal contractors such as Endeavors perform the day-to-day operations of the facilities as part of multimillion dollar contracts. Over less than two years, Endeavors has morphed into a major player in the immigration detention industry, but questions have been raised about whether company officials’ close ties to the Biden administration helped the nonprofit secure contracts — two that bypassed the competitive bidding process — worth in excess of $500 million.
Once focused primarily on helping veterans and the homeless, Endeavors’ migrant service arm now operates detention sites for migrant youths in Pecos on behalf of ORR, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). According to the nonprofit, HHS officials “asked Endeavors in March to stand up an emergency intake site in Pecos” under a no-bid contract worth up to $575 million at full payout.
Since then, “our organization has worked every single day not only to meet the requirements of the contract, but to go above and beyond, ensuring that the care provided to unaccompanied children who have crossed our southern border is centered on their best interests, health, and welfare,” Endeavors officials said in written responses to questions, after declining an on-record interview request.
Endeavors also works to shelter immigrant families in hotels via a separate $87 million contract with ICE that also was awarded without a competitive bidding process. Locations have included El Paso, Cotulla, and Scottsdale, Arizona. In a March 24 contract document, ICE officials wrote that Endeavors is the “only known source that is presently capable of meeting the government’s urgent requirement to provide 1,239 hotel beds and all-inclusive emergency family residential services to support the … response to the surge of asylum seekers at the U.S. southwest border.”
“Without the additional … facilities and services, the government will be seriously injured as it is currently not prepared to address the large influx of asylum seekers,” the document states, adding that Endeavors has “longstanding experience in providing emergency housing and relief services in this geographical area and with this type of vulnerable population.”
Pecos is Endeavors’ only facility for child migrants, though the nonprofit is working on building a state-licensed shelter in the Southeast Texas town of Eagle Lake. Competing narratives have emerged about conditions at Pecos. Pastors, politicians, and immigration lawyers are among those who have toured the facility. Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), the San Antonio-based immigration nonprofit, has staff working there full-time to educate migrants about their legal rights.
In an Oct. 5 commentary in the San Antonio Express-News, Oak Hills Church outreach minister Mike Oakes praised Endeavors for the quality of care he observed during a Sept. 8 tour of the Pecos facility with other clergy.
“Our group spent several hours meeting with staff, eating in the cafeteria with the kids and touring their dorms, education, health care, counseling, and recreation areas,” Oakes wrote. “I am grateful to report the children are benefiting from a level of care and range of programs that far exceeded my expectations.”
Conflicting narratives out of Pecos
However, immigration advocates say children are being detained at Pecos in sometimes poor conditions for months longer than is legally permissible. Jonathan Ryan, the president and CEO of RAICES at the time, wrote in a July affidavit that children detained there feel “confined, distressed, and like they are being punished.”
“Based upon my direct observations and experience working since 2005 as an attorney who primarily represents immigrants detained in Texas, I find the conditions at Pecos among the harshest and most restrictive of any [Office of Refugee Resettlement] or [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] facility that I have visited in my career,” Ryan wrote in the July statement.
Ryan’s affidavit appeared in a lawsuit filed by immigration groups against the federal government over conditions at Pecos and a separate emergency intake center at Fort Bliss. Ryan described Pecos as a “vast outdoor maze” made up of pre-fabricated buildings and tents, with gravel-covered grounds and “no shade anywhere” in the triple-digit heat.
In the same emailed statement, Endeavors strongly disputed Ryan’s claims, saying he “declined to tour the facility to see the realities of the [Pecos facility] for himself.” Ryan, who left RAICES in September, did not respond to multiple requests through a spokesman for comment or return a cell phone message left Friday.
Endeavors said the youth held there “have structured activities, including educational time, art, music and physical activity, such as soccer on a covered, turf field and access to spiritual counseling and religious, medical, and mental health services.” Each dorm room includes a television, and the children have access to tablets that are preloaded with entertaining and educational content, the organization stated.
“The members of the Endeavors team are dedicated to the care we provide at Pecos,” the statement reads. “We’re also mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and our we want to provide a space where we’d feel comfortable sending our loved ones.”
But the immigration groups have alleged violations of the 1997 Flores Agreement, which sets conditions for people under 18 held in immigration custody. One of the requirements is that children not be held longer than 20 days in facilities that don’t have a state-issued child care license.
Pecos is among at least five unlicensed facilities known as emergency intake sites housing migrant minors in the U.S. As of July 12, Pecos was home to the longest-held detainees of any of the five sites, with one 17-year-old kept there for 86 days.
That appears to have changed over the past three months. According to both ORR and Endeavors figures, the number of youths held at Pecos has dropped, along with the average length of stay. As of Aug. 31, the number of minors at Pecos had dropped to 1,210, according to ORR figures, with 1,077 of them having been inside for 20 days or fewer. Only one had been there 61 days or more, with one other held 41 to 60 days. Endeavors did not respond to a request to provide information about how long youths are currently being held at Pecos.
In the responses sent Thursday to the San Antonio Report, Endeavors wrote that “in recent days,” the number of children at Pecos has hovered around 600, with approximately 350 adults and family members held in various hotels under the ICE contract.
Overall, the nonprofit says it has “served” approximately 26,000 people under the ICE contract and another 10,000 youths at Pecos.
Laura Peña, a legal director with Texas Civil Rights Project, said that by securing the large federal contracts, Endeavors has become part of the “immigration industrial complex,” where federal agencies contract both with for-profit prison companies and more loosely focused nonprofit entities to detain migrants. Detention in for-profit facilities under the Trump administration led to “concerns of mistreatment,” she said.
“What was alarming about the Biden administration coming in was that instead of sunsetting that practice, the Biden administration just green-lighted and continued it, just with an organization that had a different tax status,” Peña said. “To me, that’s like putting lipstick on a pig.”
Potential conflict of interest probed
Endeavors’ expansion into migrant detention marks a significant shift for a nonprofit that puts its work with veterans experiencing homelessness and mental illness front and center. It operates clinics for veterans in San Antonio, Killeen, and El Paso, along with the Fairweather Family Lodge, a San Antonio shelter for single mothers with disabilities and their children.
Endeavors got its start in 1969, when several churches jointly launched San Antonio Urban Council. The name changed to San Antonio Urban Ministries, then San Antonio Family Endeavors. These days, the number of staffers employed by Endeavors fluctuates in response to needs, ranging from around 600 full-time employees to as high as 3,000.
With its headquarters in San Antonio, Endeavors is led by CEO Jon Allman, a former board member who took over the top role from Travis Pearson in March 2019. Allman earned $292,013 in 2019; other top staffers at the nonprofit earned between $100,000 and $200,000 annually in 2019, the last year records were available.
Allman served in the Air Force with Chip Fulghum, who later rose through the ranks at the Department of Homeland Security to become chief financial officer. Fulghum left DHS and started at Endeavors as chief operating officer in October 2018. Allman and Fulghum both declined to be interviewed on the record.
Before it secured the contracts with ICE and ORR, Endeavors hired Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, a former deputy assistant director at ICE who served on President Joe Biden’s transition team. Lorenzen-Strait’s job at ICE involved exploring alternatives to traditional ICE detention, including a program to match immigrant families to caseworkers.
Lorenzen-Strait’s connection to the Biden administration caught the eye of Republican U.S. House members, who have criticized how the contract was awarded. Twenty-six Republican members of the House committees on Oversight and Homeland Security wrote a letter in April to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra requesting documents related to the ORR contract.
“The size of the contracts awarded to … Endeavors, the manner in which they were awarded, that firm’s lack of equivalent experience, the timing of Mr. Lorenzen-Straight’s hiring, and his connection to the Biden administration combine to raise serious concerns of potential impropriety,” the letter states.
DHS’ Office of the Inspector General, which provides internal oversight of the agency, also is evaluating how ICE selected Endeavors for the $87 million contract, a spokesperson confirmed to the San Antonio Report.
In July, Lorenzen-Strait was banned from future work on ICE contracts after he reportedly served as Endeavors’ advisor while brokering the contract, according to the Washington Examiner.
Endeavors’ website has conflicting start dates for Lorenzen-Strait. One page states his role as senior director for migrants services and federal affairs began Jan. 25 of this year; another page states Lorenzen-Strait has “been with Endeavors since early 2020.”
In their statement, Endeavors officials described Lorenzen-Strait as “a valued member of the Endeavors team who brings with him decades of passion and expertise working with migrant populations.
“His focus is on overseeing child-centric services at Pecos and other duties within our migrant services division,” the statement reads. “He does not work on the ICE contract.”
‘I am still here’
By the time a translator interviewed the 17-year-old girl from El Salvador, she had been at the Pecos facility for 65 days.
In her four-page affidavit, the girl describes life there. The dorms are “comfortable” but the food led to her seeing the facility doctor twice and made other children sick, she said. She has clean clothes and shoes and can shower whenever she wants. Children detained there can go outside one hour per day, where they often play soccer or basketball; indoors they can watch movies, listen to music, and take occasional English classes.
“The staff treat us well and I get along with the other kids here,” she said.
The girl wanted to go to Virginia to be with her father and brother, each of whom have been in the U.S. more than 10 years. Her 32-year-old brother told her he had submitted the paperwork to secure her release roughly a month after her arrival at Pecos.
Still, her case seemed to go nowhere. She met with two Endeavors case workers during her detention, and only on Thursdays. One case worker told the girl she “thought it would only take up to two weeks to complete the paperwork for me to be released.”
“About a month ago, I spoke with someone else about my release and she confirmed that every single piece of paper necessary for my release has been completed,” the girl said. “This is what I have been told for the past month, but I am still here.”
Immigration advocates say they are better equipped than Endeavors to handle migrants’ casework and legal issues in a way that could more swiftly unite them with their sponsors. Linda Rivas, an attorney who directs Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, called the Endeavors contract a “slap in the face” to Frontera Welcome Coalition — a network of faith-based community, local governments, nonprofits, and volunteers in border cities such as El Paso that she says have more community-based experience welcoming new immigrants than contractors like Endeavors.
Jojo is a 30-year-old mother of five who lives in an apartment complex across the street from the Pecos facility. Through the fence, she can see the migrant youths playing soccer or walking with an escort to meals. She asked that her full name be withheld to protect her privacy.
Having worked in a prison as a correctional officer in the past, Jojo considers the Pecos facility a “gray area.”
“They’re safe and sound, but they’re not getting what they need,” Jojo said. What a child needs, she said, is to be with his or her family.
“They’re very sweet and kind,” Jojo said of Endeavors staff and contractors, many of whom she’s met. “They do what they’ve got to do for the kids. But it’s not unconditional love. There’s a difference.”