ICE paid $17 million for migrant hotel rooms that went unused, watchdog says

Rafael Carranza
Arizona Republic
  • ICE awarded a Texas company with an $87 million contract to house migrants in hotels along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021.
  • The U.S. had been struggling to cope with an increase in unaccompanied minors and families in its custody, but many of the hotel rooms still went empty.
  • The unused rooms cost ICE, and U.S. taxpayers, an estimated $16.98 million, according to a government watchdog office.

PHOENIX – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement paid nearly $17 million for unused, empty beds last year after entering into a contract with a Texas company to house migrant families in hotel rooms in Arizona and Texas, according to a report published last week by a government watchdog office.

ICE in March 2021 awarded San Antonio-based Endeavors an $87 million contract to house up to 1,239 migrants at six hotels from March to September 2021 at an average cost of $352 per bed space each night.

When the contract was announced, the federal government had been struggling to cope with an increase in unaccompanied minors and families in its custody. ICE takes custody of migrant families after Border Patrol or customs officers process them at the border.

The move was designed to reduce ICE's workload by contracting with a private company to house, process and care for migrant families apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border in hotels known as "emergency family reception sites." 

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Two of the hotels were in the Phoenix metro area; one was in Yuma, Arizona; two were in El Paso, Texas; and a sixth was in Pearsall, Texas.

The El Paso hotels at which migrants were housed included a Best Western about 2 miles south of the El Paso International Airport, according to an April 7, 2021, report in the Washington Examiner. Immigration and Customs Enforcement called the hotel “Casa Estrella,” or “Star House,” and at least 186 beds reportedly were made available for families.

Another 158 beds reportedly were made available at a Comfort Inn in El Paso, which was called “Casa Consuelo,” or “House of Consolation.”

The report said usage at an El Paso hotel averaged 21%. The hotel was not identified.

In a report published Monday, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General determined that at least half of the hotel rooms that ICE paid to house migrant families were empty from March to June. That cost ICE, and U.S. taxpayers, an estimated $16.98 million on unused bed space. 

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'Endeavors had no experience providing the services covered'

The inspector general said that ICE did not adequately justify why it gave the $87 million contract to Endeavors without soliciting bids from other companies. In fact, Endeavors had initially reached out to ICE to submit a proposal to house migrants in hotels.

"ICE records showed that Endeavors had no experience providing the services covered by the sole source contract, including hotel beds or all-inclusive emergency family residential services," the report said. "Rather, the contractor only had experience providing staffing for other migrant services. Further, there was no documentation to show that Endeavors had the capability to provide such services, other than the statements made in its proposal." 

Investigators found that Endeavors failed to meet some of the federal government's standards of care for migrant families in short-term detention. They include providing video recording capabilities to monitor use-of-force incidents, or safeguarding important documents such as passports and birth certificates for families in custody. 

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The company did not follow proper health care protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at a time when cases were on the rise as variants swept around the globe, the report said. 

Migrants arriving at an ICE hotel in El Paso, Texas, in May 2021.

"Families were not tested by ICE for COVID-19 prior to being transported to hotels and were not always tested by Endeavors staff upon arrival at or departure from hotels, putting migrant families and the outside population at risk of contracting COVID-19," it added. 

ICE documented 1,713 COVID-19 cases at the hotels operated by Endeavors between April and November 2021.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement disputed the report's findings, saying that the increase in the arrival of families created an "unusual and compelling urgency" that allowed it under the Federal Acquisition Regulations to award the contract to Endeavors.

"ICE used this exemption to competition based on an urgent need to obtain Emergency Family Staging Centers and meet its critical mission of housing, feeding, transporting, and providing medical attention to thousands of noncitizen families," Stephen Rancone, ICE's chief financial officer and senior component accountable official, said in a letter responding to the report.

Migrants waiting to be processed at an ICE hotel in Phoenix in May 2021.

ICE said that it followed COVID-19 protocols and that it had field medical coordinators provide guidance and oversight on screening and testing at all Endeavors facilities. It worked closely with Endeavors to ensure that it met standards of care for migrants staying at the hotels, the agency said. 

Endeavors told The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, in an emailed statement that it sought to help the federal government with the influx of migrant families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. They disputed the inspector general's findings about testing and care. 

"We agree with ICE and its conclusion that Endeavors followed appropriate protocols and met the standard of care for migrant families in this contract," the statement said. "For Endeavors, lending our expertise to help ensure families are afforded care and services was simply the right thing to do, and consistent with our mission of compassionately serving vulnerable people in crisis."

ICE stops hotel housing, but doesn't rule out future use

Immigration and Customs Enforcement operated three family detention centers, two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania. They had a combined capacity of 3,326 beds. 

According to the inspector general's report, ICE had available beds in those facilities at the time but did not use them. The federal agency has stopped housing families at those three centers as of December. 

Under the contract with Endeavors, ICE paid more than $10 million for unused hotel rooms at the three hotels located in Texas. They paid the remaining $6 million for empty rooms in the three hotels in Arizona. 

ICE stopped using the hotels to house migrant families in December. The remaining facilities closed down in March, the agency said.

Instead of housing the families in staging centers such as the hotels, ICE said it was moving toward using alternatives to detention. But it did not rule out using them once again in the future.

"Should ICE's requirements for housing migrant families change in the future, then ICE will conduct an assessment to appropriately determine the housing needs of families before entering into a similar or new contract," the agency said. 

Follow reporter Rafael Carranza on Twitter: @RafaelCarranza.