Biden's Giant Tent City for Migrant Kids Relies on Alabama’s ‘Master of Disaster’

A contractor is getting paid $614 million to house up to 10,000 migrant children on a Texas military base.
May 24, 2021, 4:39pm
An entrance to Fort Bliss is shown as reports indicate the military will begin to construct temporary housing for migrants on June 25, 2018 in Fort Bliss, Texas.
An entrance to Fort Bliss is shown as reports indicate the military will begin to construct temporary housing for migrants on June 25, 2018 in Fort Bliss, Texas. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

With thousands of migrant children stuck on a sweltering Texas military base and hundreds more arriving at the border each day, the Biden administration has turned to an obscure Republican contractor dubbed the “Master of Disaster” to erect a massive tent city for kids. 

The price tag for his company’s services: a cool $614.3 million.

The mega-contract went to Alabama-based Rapid Deployment Inc., led by CEO Bruce Wagner, whose involvement in federal disaster response dates back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He recently supplied the government with refrigerated mortuary trailers to store bodies of COVID-19 victims.

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Wagner’s company was hired to build shelter facilities at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army garrison near El Paso. It’s one of several emergency intake sites used by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to temporarily house children who arrive alone at the border while they undergo vetting to be placed with sponsors or relatives in the U.S. 

Know something about Fort Bliss or HHS’ other emergency intake sites for migrant children? We'd like to hear from you. Contact: keegan.hamilton@vice.com.

Rapid Deployment’s contract at Fort Bliss, scrutinized here for the first time by VICE News, shows how the Biden administration, when faced with the historic wave of migrant kids arriving at the border in the past few months, threw money at the problem. Tax dollars flowed to a company that has some experience with disaster relief, but never with such a giant contract for the mass warehousing of vulnerable children. The result, visitors say, has the feel of an internment camp, where kids are surrounded by a secure perimeter and crowded into flimsy tents.

Lawyers who defend the rights of migrant children in U.S. custody say kids are languishing for weeks in the tents at Fort Bliss with minimal activities or no formal school to keep them occupied, irregular access to showers and laundry, and a troubling lack support services to care for young people who have frequently endured trauma on their journeys to the border.

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Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat whose congressional district includes Fort Bliss, spoke with VICE News after touring the site last Friday and meeting with Amy Pope, Biden’s senior adviser on migration. Escobar said she spoke with nearly a dozen kids who’d spent over five weeks on average at Fort Bliss and left convinced that “mega sites” are a bad idea.

“The bigger the bureaucracy, the bigger the facility, the bigger the problem.”

“We need to break down these big sites. I find them depressing and disheartening,” Escobar said. “The bigger the bureaucracy, the bigger the facility, the bigger the problem. I’ve made that very clear.”

The fort currently houses over 4,800 teenagers in cavernous white tents, each roughly the size of a football field. Asked for a real-world comparison, one recent visitor compared the tents to something you’d find at a large music festival like Coachella—only repurposed as housing for desperate children and set up in a rugged dirt area behind an active military base. 

Rapid Deployment’s management of the Fort Bliss site is noted in solicitation documents first obtained by the Associated Press. Preparations are reportedly underway to more than double capacity, creating space for up to 5,000 "tender age" minors 12 and under. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said Monday, however, that the administration has no plans to move young children into the site. 

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Two no-bid contracts were awarded in late March in chunks of $126.1 million and $488.2 million. The contracts expire May 30 but could be extended, according to one expert who analyzed the deal for VICE News, potentially raising total costs to over $1 billion.

Asked about the agency’s use of contractors, Becerra said the agency has the right to cancel deals if problems arise, and noted that HHS already moved swiftly in response to an incident at another intake shelter in Texas where a child was left on a bus overnight.

“We expect the contractors to fulfill their obligations and we expect that the law will be respected,” Becerra said. “And since we're talking about kids, it's even a heightened responsibility that we and the contractors have to do the duty right.”

Rapid Deployment, founded by Wagner in 2006 in his home city of Mobile, has a long track record of springing into action to assist with—and profit from—natural disasters and humanitarian crises. The company’s website says it provides various types of ready-made tents and camp structures, along with support services such as potable water, and has been deployed in “Iraq, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Nigeria and other countries, conflicts, and disasters.” 

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Wagner secured $33 million in government contracts in just 30 days, leading Forbes to proclaim him “Alabama’s Master of Disaster.” After Hurricane Katrina, another Wagner company, Clearbrook, received $150 million in contracts to build tent cities and provide a range of other services for FEMA. The media took notice when Clearbook charged FEMA $6.2 million for box lunches, and a 2007 Inspector General’s report found “contractual deficiencies, excessive billings, and questionable costs of $16.4 million.”

Wagner referred an interview request from VICE News to HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, which awarded the recent contracts to Rapid Deployment. He did not respond to a subsequent email with a list of questions.

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Wagner, who is in his early 60s, denied any wrongdoing with the Katrina contracts during his interview last year with Forbes, blaming a subcontractor who handled his invoicing for the mixup and stating that false charges were repaid. He suggested he faced scrutiny “because I made too much money, too fast, I guess.”

A spokesperson for HHS said the agency is “working diligently with its interagency partners to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children are unified with family members or other suitable sponsors in the U.S. as quickly and safely as possible.”

Leecia Welch, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law who toured Fort Bliss in late April and interviewed around 15 children, was struck by conversations with teenage girls at the camp who seemed desperate for help after being shuttled from one makeshift facility to another.

“I heard that many of the girls were crying a lot and really needed to talk to someone because of the feelings they were having,” Welch said. “There were girls discussing self-harm and other things that were really troubling.”

The girls complained of high winds in the Chihuahuan Desert whipping dirt into the tents and rattling the metal frames, Welch said. The tents are filled with row after row of military-style cots stacked into bunk beds, and the attorney met some who were reluctant to sleep on the bottom because they’d seen them collapse. In the boys’ tents, Welch found hundreds of teens 13-17 crammed in together and not segregated by age, creating a “tinderbox” atmosphere. The whole compound shares one outdoor play area, which is unusable when daytime temperatures soar, though an alternate indoor area is said to have opened recently.

Under a 1997 legal settlement known as the Flores agreement, the government is supposed to move kids out of temporary holding facilities at the border and into licensed childcare facilities within 72 hours. The emergency intake sites are meant as a more humane alternative to frigid Border Patrol holding cells, where kids have been photographed sleeping on the floor packed in like sardines under silver space blankets. Welch, a co-counsel in the Flores case, said it’s up to the Biden administration to ensure contractors meet court-ordered standards for caring for children.

“The federal government can set the terms of the contract,” Welch said. “And if we’re doling out hundreds of millions of dollars and the contract doesn’t require the company to meet the minimal standards set out in Flores, that’s on the government.”

Early in the pandemic, the Trump administration sealed off the border on public health grounds, denying admission to nearly everyone. Biden has kept Trump’s no-entry policy mostly in place but granted a pass to unaccompanied minors.

Despite officials urging families to stay home until an orderly system is in place, many migrant parents have sensed an opportunity and decided to send their kids across the border, testing the administration’s ability to provide adequate care and quickly place the youngsters with relatives or sponsors. As of May 20, federal authorities reported 19,171 children in HHS custody, compared to roughly 1,400 around the same time last year.

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With virtually no infrastructure in place to house the migrant children, the Biden administration has turned to private contractors like Rapid Deployment. The contracts are typically “Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity,” which means  the companies are on call to scale up at a moment’s notice. Another company called Deployed Resources LLC, unrelated to Wagner’s operation, has also been hired to run a 1,500-bed shelter in Donna, Texas. HHS has awarded at least $3 billion since February, including $2 billion without bids.

Scott H. Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, questioned whether some companies had bitten off more than they could chew in pursuit of multimillion-dollar border contracts, a dangerous proposition with human lives at stake.

“When you’re talking about tens of thousands of children at the border, it’s not the time for these people to not perform.”

“The contractors have to either sink or swim,” Amey said. “At this point, when you’re talking about tens of thousands of children at the border, it’s not the time for these people to not perform.”

Amey noted the sole reason listed by HHS for awarding no-bid contracts to Rapid Deployment was "urgency," and that the contracts could be extended to “have a total value near or above $1 billion.” Records show the HHS money is for “wrap-around services,” including “direct care and supervision” for unaccompanied children in federal custody. 

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Campaign finance records show Wagner recently donated a combined $4,500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign of Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and a group called “Jobs, Freedom, and Security,” which supports GOP causes. He didn’t respond to a question about how his politics square with his work providing services for kids at the border.

An internal status report from early May reviewed by VICE News showed government officials had flagged concerns about health, safety, and staffing issues at Fort Bliss. The report noted that “staffing ramp-up is under development” and said expansion to 10,000 beds could create “potential for future transition to an influx care facility.” The military base shelter is set to continue operating until October, the report says.

Staffing has been one of the biggest challenges in the Biden administration’s border response. In April, multiple federal agencies put out a call asking employees to volunteer for temporary reassignments working with migrant children. The requests reportedly went out to NASA, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others. 

An “Emergency Operations” overview for federal workers obtained by VICE News listed duties as “youth care and case management” and said personnel would be trained after arriving on site. Though the vast majority of the kids hail from Latin America, the “Youth Care” job duties stated “Spanish proficiency is not required,” though it was “highly preferred” for case managers, who interview and screen kids for trauma. 

“Common traumatic experiences that unaccompanied children report include gang violence, sexual abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse, being separated for a long time from parents, and witnessing the deaths or suffering of people they love,” the document states.

“They got us babysitting kids at the border,” grumbled one federal prison worker in Texas who declined to volunteer. “We’re not capable of looking after children. Seriously, that's a whole different ballgame. We’re not trained on dealing with juveniles; we’re trained to work with adult inmates.”

Welch, the lawyer who toured Fort Bliss last month, found volunteer federal staffers performing critical roles like organizing phone banks so kids could call their family members. She praised Biden for his initial rollback of one of the Trump era’s harshest policies, but she wondered why it’s taking so long for the administration to ramp up staffing and cajole Rapid Deployment and the various contractors operating at Fort Bliss and elsewhere to improve conditions.

According to the latest HHS data, 55 children have been at Fort Bliss for 45 days, since it opened on March 30; nearly 600 children have been there for 40 days or more; and 1,675 children have been there for over 30 days.

“Because of the nature of the emergency operation, they deserve to be cut some slack on Day One,” Welch said. “I’d cut some slack on Day 14 even, but if it’s Day 50 and you still don't have adequate staffing, it’s not acceptable.”