In late March, a 17-year-old girl from Guatemala crossed into the U.S. alone and was quickly apprehended by Border Patrol. She spent four days in a freezing and overcrowded holding cell at the border, then took a 13-hour bus ride with 26 other teenage girls to a newly-opened federal shelter in Houston, where conditions were supposed to be better.
Instead, the girl and around 450 others found themselves assigned to military-style cots in a giant warehouse, where a disturbing series of events unfolded over the course of 16 days, including the death of a federal employee, a bomb scare, and incidents that felt to the girls involved like would-be kidnappings. A lawyer who interviewed the Guatemalan girl and others at the Houston site characterized it as “attempted abduction.”
“It felt like the place was possessed,” the Guatemalan girl said, according to a court filing in which her name is redacted. “At one point, they had priests come in to bless the place. Girls were fainting every day. I didn’t know why.”
Key details about what happened at the Houston shelter remain fuzzy, but police and court records obtained by VICE News, along with interviews with the private contractor who operated the facility, shed new light on the debacle, which occurred at the peak of a historic influx of migrant children arriving at the border.
Have information about what happened at the Houston warehouse or another federal shelter for migrant children? Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Forced to care for thousands of “unaccompanied” minors, the Biden administration threw money at the problem, scrambling to open more than a dozen “Emergency Intake Sites” operated by private contractors as a stopgap alternative to border holding cells. In Houston, a multimillion-dollar no-bid contract went to an organization called NACC Disaster Services, a wing of the National Association of Christian Churches, led by an evangelical pastor named Jose Ortega.
Ortega’s NACC site was abruptly closed on April 17, barely two weeks after it opened, with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) citing the need to “ensure continuity of care under conditions that meet our strict standards” but thus far offering no further explanation for canceling the contract. The agency’s press office acknowledged receiving multiple calls and emails with requests for comment, but it has not yet provided a response.
“We have enough details to know something very frightening and inappropriate happened at that facility.”
The 50-year-old Ortega told VICE News his original vision was for the NACC to purchase a large facility in Houston with proper housing and an outdoor play area, but Biden officials told him there was no time. With the migration wave at the border becoming a full-blown crisis, the White House was desperate to find somewhere to warehouse the kids—and what Ortega had to offer was a literal warehouse, a 114,400-square-foot building near Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Ortega said in late March he spoke personally with President Biden’s HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who urged him to convert the warehouse into a temporary shelter within 24 hours.
“He begged me,” Ortega said of his phone call with Becerra. “He said, ‘We'll dance salsa, we’ll dance merengue, we’ll dance whatever, but please do me this favor: Receive these kids.’”
Ortega’s facility had been used as a warming shelter during a winter freeze in Houston, but the NACC had no experience offering care for vulnerable children like the ones arriving at the border. Parts of the warehouse lacked air conditioning, and it was full of cardboard boxes stacked on wood pallets.
Locations for other federal “Emergency Intake Sites” have included convention centers and a massive tent city on a Texas military base. According to government data, around 14,500 kids are currently being held in HHS custody, down from a peak of over 25,000 earlier in the spring. With arrivals at the border on the decline, six of the sites are slated for closure.
Ortega said he ultimately got three days to prepare. HHS officials gave him guidance on how to fill out the contract paperwork and “we copied exactly what they gave us,” he said. Federal contracting records show NACC Disaster Services received a total of $4 million from HHS, with the contract terminated April 16. Ortega says the deal was supposed to be for $65 million, or $5 million every two weeks, enough to cover a staff of 130 and expenses to house, feed, and care for up to 500 children.
The problems, Ortega said, began almost immediately due to poor communication and bureaucratic infighting between federal agencies in charge, with HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and Homeland Security’s FEMA as the two main players.
“If you entered in the middle of night, you wouldn’t have known the difference between it being a detention center or a warehouse where they’re just storing dry goods.”
“It was a nightmare,” Ortega said. “Every agency, there were four or five agencies, they all wanted to be the boss. They’re all fighting with each other.”
The buses carrying migrant girls, Ortega said, would sometimes arrive on short notice in the middle of the night. The girls came wearing “institutional clothing, sweats, and jail flip-flops,” he recalled, and some hadn’t showered for over a week. Those with lice or other medical issues went to the medical tent—a blue tarp set up in the warehouse, adorned with a cardboard “Clinico de Medico” sign with stars and smiley faces.
‘The girl didn’t know if she was going to be kidnapped.’
Three girls from the Houston site, including the 17-year-old Guatemalan, gave sworn declarations (embedded in full at the bottom of this story) as part of ongoing litigation from the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement. Under Flores, HHS is supposed to take custody of unaccompanied migrant kids within 72 hours and place them either with a vetted sponsor (usually a family member) or in a licensed childcare facility.
The three girls described nightmarish experiences at the warehouse. There was no time outdoors and they were confined to their cots all day, even to eat meals, which one said included undercooked chicken and expired milk.
“I was hungry every single night,” the Guatemalan girl said in her court declaration.
(Ortega said the girls were well fed—“they ate like piranhas”—and also blamed a subcontractor for supplying any sub-par meals.)
There were strict rules about using the bathrooms, the girls complained, to the point that one was preparing to pee in a plastic bag before staff let her use the facilities.
“They told us two times a day was a rule they had there,” the Guatemalan girl said, according to court records. “We learned not to ask questions because we wouldn’t get answers.”
Ortega said federal officials sent to oversee the site imposed tight bathroom rules because “there was one girl that was trying to molest other girls in there,” recalling that the intended victims were indigenous Guatemalans who did not speak Spanish.
Houston police records obtained by VICE News show an April 9 call for service at the NACC’s address to investigate the discharge of a firearm. The call log contains notes for “location unknown” and “unfounded,” which, according to the Houston PD’s records unit, “means by the time the officer got to the scene they were unable to locate the party who made the call or unable to locate where the shots were taking place.”
Ortega accused someone of lighting off a firecracker inside the warehouse. Whatever it was, it left the teenage girls terrified.
“We heard a very loud noise one night, and then no one wanted to explain to us what was happening,” the Guatemalan girl said. “A volunteer told us that it was a bomb, but that it would be OK.”
Another girl, a 17-year-old from El Salvador whose name is redacted from her sworn statement, thought she heard helicopters, and then, she said: “I heard a man in the hallway scream something and there was a loud explosion outside. I don’t know what happened, but one of the security guards said something about a bomb. After that happened, they put two security guards at each door. Some of the girls were so stressed and scared that they fainted.”
The girls described hearing about or witnessing attempts by unidentified individuals to take girls from the Houston warehouse without consent or authorization from staff. A 17-year-old Honduran girl gave a declaration and recounted an incident that occurred a few days before the shelter closed, around midnight during lights-out time.
“There was a woman who was not staff or security,” the girl said. “She was calling out for girls to see who was awake. She was lurking near the bathroom. One girl was awake and the woman approached her. She told her to get up from the cot. The woman then opened the door to go outside. There was no one there manning the door and the door was not locked. There was a woman and a man and two cars outside. The girl didn’t know if she was going to be kidnapped. The way she was able to be taken outside was concerning. When they were bringing her back inside, they told her they would come for her the next day.”
The Honduran said the girl who was taken outside “didn’t want to tell anyone at the shelter because she didn’t want anything bad to happen to her, but she eventually spoke up.”
Another girl, the Honduran teen said, also witnessed the encounter: “She saw this woman approach the girl, lean over and whisper, ‘Come with me,’ and then take the girl outside.”
The Honduran, according to her court statement, said staff and “the director of the shelter” followed up and “told the girl not to tell other staff members or girls what had happened, or else the girls would get scared.”
But rumors were already spreading.
“The girls in my section heard that there was a woman that showed up in the middle of the night who didn’t work at the facility,” the Salvadoran girl said, according to court records. “The woman tried to take a girl away, but one of the guards stopped her. There was a van with two men smoking outside.”
The Guatemalan offered a different variation, telling the lawyer who interviewed her that a worker at the warehouse “told me that there is someone who was working there who had been taking information from the girls and had already taken eight girls away and was trying to take a ninth girl.” She cautioned that she had “no way of confirming that story,” but added, “the girls were talking about this, and we were scared.”
The Flores attorney who conducted the interviews, Leecia Welch, told VICE News she was so alarmed by what she heard that she took the unusual step of alerting federal law enforcement, something she’d never done previously in dozens of other visits to HHS-contracted facilities to interview children.
“I had no way of knowing if this was a one-time incident or an ongoing set of issues,” Welch said. “From there, I’ve been doing my best to try to make sure there's a proper investigation, and honestly, to this day, I have no idea if there has been.”
“I’ve been doing my best to try to make sure there's a proper investigation, and honestly, to this day, I have no idea if there has been.”
Welch, who works for the National Center for Youth Law, said that while only three declarations from the Houston site have been filed publicly, she spoke with more than 10 others who gave similar accounts. She noted that many girls were awake during the evening incident because they were bored and slept all day.
“Lots of other young people described a very similar set of facts, kind of zeroing in on this attempted abduction,” Welch said. “We had a lot of accounts that, although we don't know the details of what exactly happened, we have enough details to know something very frightening and inappropriate happened at that facility.”
Asked about alleged misconduct or abuse at the emergency intake sites in general, not just Houston, HHS Secretary Becerra told reporters the agency and its Inspector General’s office would investigate and “report it to local law enforcement, as we must.”
Ortega and another NACC employee claim what happened was not an attempted kidnapping but an overzealous HHS employee who conducted several impromptu security checks by trying to see if kids could be lured out of the facility.
Ortega described the person as an African American woman who wore a Navy or Coast Guard-type uniform and had the rank of captain, known to him and staff as “Captain BB.” Ortega seemed to be describing a member of HHS’ Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which has been deployed to the intake sites and has blue jumpsuit-style uniforms.
“She took it upon herself to try to kidnap girls to see if our security methods were in place,” Ortega said. “The girls didn’t know. The girls were basically panicked. She came in the middle of the night, put a hoodie on, and tried to abduct these girls to take them out to see if our security would stop them.”
Ortega said his security contractors questioned the woman about the nighttime incident, but there was also another time when she escorted a child out to a loading dock area.
David Díaz Kaplan, an NACC employee and the site manager under Ortega, told VICE News he and other staffers witnessed the uniformed “Captain BB” take a girl outside for a few minutes, then return and complain that nobody tried to intervene.
“She brought a girl by the hand over to the loading dock outside of the pod area,” Díaz Kaplan said. “When she said it was a breach of security, we said, ‘That’s absolutely insane; you’re the person who is allowed to do that.’”
“When she said it was a breach of security, we said, ‘That’s absolutely insane; you’re the person who is allowed to do that.’”
Ortega’s security contractor, Mauricio Garcia, president of the Houston Harris Commission, spoke to VICE News on a phone call with Ortega’s attorney also on the line. Garcia said he wasn’t at the warehouse himself, but he was told his staff intervened to prevent a girl from being removed in the middle of the night.
“One of my security guards stopped them from coming out,” Garcia said. “I think they were doing a simulation or something. My security guard at the door was there to say, ‘Hey, nobody is going out at this time in the morning.’ Whatever happened, my security guard was there, he stopped what they were doing.”
Garcia declined to answer further questions without first consulting with his own attorney, but he said Homeland Security agents followed up on the incident and praised his staff’s work.
“They congratulated me for everything that happened,” Garcia said. “They said everything was good and told me thank you for the good job I did.”
‘It's not as if we're just giving these contracts to anyone.’
In a June 28 news conference, Becerra said the Houston site was shut down “because the contractors were not meeting the terms of their agreement with us.”
“All of these contractors have to show the capacity to do the work,” Becerra said. “They have to show that their personnel, because these are children we're dealing with, have gone through vetting. And so it's not as if we're just giving these contracts to anyone.”
But in many ways, the NACC was a baffling choice to run a federal shelter for children. The domain that used to host the organization’s website currently redirects to a site that sells erectile dysfunction medicine, which Ortega sheepishly said happened after he forgot to renew his lease and an Indian pharmaceutical company snatched up the URL. On another site, the NACC describes its work as focused on hurricane relief, working “directly with survivors to assess, muck out, remove debris, & rebuild, feed the homeless.”
The NACC is registered as a tax-exempt church organization and does not have to file the same financial disclosure information as secular nonprofits. Ortega said he currently has around 20 employees and an annual budget of $2.5 million. The NACC’s website says the organization dates back to 1992 as “a church resource center” and began doing disaster relief in 2005. Ortega, who is Puerto Rican, said he is ordained by the Hispanic Assemblies of God but does not have his own church or congregation, instead ministering through his work and occasional guest appearances at other churches.
The NACC does have prominent supporters. Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion partnered with the group to help rebuild houses in the city, and Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa donated money to fund the NACC’s hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Houston, previously praised the NACC’s disaster relief efforts as “very effective,” according to the Houston Chronicle. Ortega suggested the congresswoman or another one of his contacts may have put in a good word with Biden officials, but he said he wasn’t sure how the administration heard about him.
A spokesperson for Jackson Lee said her staff would “check on'' whether she was involved in setting up the NACC site, but they did not respond to subsequent inquiries from VICE News about her relationship to Ortega and his organization.
A federal official involved in setting up the intake sites, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said decisions were made “with influence of local congressional delegates” but wasn’t certain whether Jackson Lee was involved.
Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the immigrant rights organization FIEL Houston, told VICE News he’d never heard of Pastor Ortega or his group until the shelter opened. Espinosa toured the warehouse in early April with a congressional delegation and was struck by the disorganization.
“They were literally building the plane as they were flying it,” Espinosa said. “If you entered in the middle of night, you wouldn’t have known the difference between it being a detention center or a warehouse where they’re just storing dry goods.”
Espinosa noted that many volunteers at the site appeared to be young girls, roughly the same age as the teens they were supposed to be supervising. Ortega said HHS initially told him he’d be housing boys, so he recruited an all-male staff, only to be informed at the last minute that he would receive girls instead, leaving him scrambling to adjust and find female volunteers from local churches.
Ortega speculated that staffers for HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) were looking for an excuse to shut down the warehouse and ship the kids to other facilities. He called the officials he dealt with “bullies” and “monsters.”
“The people from ORR and HHS were traumatizing these girls with a whole bunch of scare tactics,” Ortega said. “It was more to figure out a way to justify them leaving.”
By Friday, April 16, word spread in Houston that the warehouse shelter was closing. A local news crew had staked out the facility, and immigrant rights advocates showed up to monitor the situation. By around 6:30 p.m. the warehouse was surrounded by police cars and fire trucks—it was obvious there was some type of emergency.
An HHS employee named Mary Brodie-Henderson had collapsed on the job and was transported to a nearby hospital, where she died. Brodie-Henderson, according to an obituary, was 58 and normally worked in Washington, D.C. as an IT support specialist for HHS. She was first identified by the Washington Post, which obtained an email from Becerra to HHS staff.
“We are saddened by this terrible loss, and immensely grateful for Mary’s contributions and every single person contributing to this effort serving unaccompanied children,” Becerra wrote.
According to Ortega, Brodie-Henderson was having trouble breathing from an asthma attack. He said there was an ambulance and medical staff on site to care for the migrant children, but HHS staff still called 911 and asked to have paramedics dispatched, which he believed slowed the response time. Police records confirm calls for emergency medical service on the night of April 16 and a “special assignment” the following morning.
‘It felt like a drug raid.’
HHS sent a fleet of buses to move the 450 or so girls who remained in the shelter to other facilities. Some of them ended up at Fort Bliss, another troubled contractor-run site in Texas, where there have reportedly been several attempted escapes and incidents of self-harm among the children housed there.
One 13-year-girl at Fort Bliss, a Honduran interviewed by Welch in the Flores case, said she was one of at least 28 placed on “the 1:1 suicide watch list.” That meant she was followed by a staff member at all times and not allowed to have pencils for her coloring book or a lanyard for her ID card.
“There are a lot of security guards, and they watch us to make sure we don’t escape,” the girl said. “Some girls were using the plastic identification cards to cut themselves, and the staff was worried about the security risk from the lanyard, so I was given an identification bracelet instead. I would prefer to have a card and lanyard because it doesn’t get lost as easily.”
Ortega felt the feds went overboard on the morning of the closure by sending federal agents to surround the warehouse and locking him out of the facility.
“It felt like a drug raid,” he recalled.
He sent an audio recording from that morning of girls crying and screaming in Spanish. “I’m scared,” one shouts. “No one tells us anything!”
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” another yells. “I’ve never lived something like this… it’s not fair!”
Houston police records associated with the NACC’s address show a report dated May 1—two weeks after federal authorities shut down the emergency intake site—with a summary listed as “investigation human trafficking.” The Houston PD’s records division said no additional records were available due to an ongoing investigation, and a police spokesperson referred questions to Homeland Security Investigations.
Ortega said on May 1 the NACC took in several people who were suspected victims of human trafficking found during a police raid on a migrant stash house in the Houston area. He said local police and federal authorities sent migrants because the NACC still had a COVID-19 isolation tent set up from the kids site. (An HSI official confirmed at least five people were quarantined at the NACC warehouse, but could offer no further details.) The warehouse is also still hosting a short-term “family transfer center” for migrants, not affiliated with the federal government but with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Ortega denied any wrongdoing while running the shelter for children, and said the whole experience was so stressful he ended up in a hospital for a week with kidney and heart problems. He identifies as Republican but said he felt compelled to answer the call for the Biden administration. He didn’t fault the president for how things turned out, but he criticized HHS and Becerra for putting him in an impossible position.
“It’s not the president,” Ortega said. “It’s the people below.”
One HHS employee, who requested anonymity for fear of being fired, defended the agency’s handling of the emergency intake sites. The employee declined to discuss what went wrong at Houston specifically but said overall the government did its best in difficult circumstances.
“These things popped up overnight, kids were being bussed in, each site did the best they could do receiving the kids,” the HHS employee said. “Some sites are not going to do as well as others. Some are going to struggle more with the bureaucracy.”
After leaving Houston, the girl from Guatemala ended up at Fort Bliss in El Paso, sleeping in a huge tent with about 300 other girls, where she complained about the cold and dirt blowing into the tent from the surrounding desert. She reported feeling depressed, like others around her.
“A lot of the girls here cry a lot,” she said. “A lot of them end up having to talk to someone because they have thoughts of cutting themselves. They are sad because they don’t want to be here anymore.”
The girl hoped to reunite with an uncle in New York and get a job “because I have a lot of debt to pay off.” After that, she hoped to become a nurse or doctor “to fight for people’s health so that they don’t feel hopeless and can get the help they need.”
She still wasn’t sure exactly what happened in Houston.
“To be honest, I never got a truthful response as to why we were moving,” the girl said. “I never got a straight answer about the reason we left.”
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter @Keegan_Hamilton
June 21 court filings from the Flores Settlement Case include sworn declarations from three girls housed at the Houston warehouse.