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There's growing pressure to overhaul how the U.S. detains undocumented migrants. The number of people held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers last month topped 54,000, a record high. Private companies, contractors run many of these facilities. They've been criticized for poor health and safety conditions, and there are persistent questions about one contractor in particular. It gets paid tens of millions of dollars a year to ensure that other contractors are doing their job. NPR's Yuki Noguchi has the story.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: ICE relies heavily on a small company called the Nakamoto Group. Nakamoto's job is to inspect the work of other contractors at more than a hundred ICE detention facilities. But Nakamoto has become a lightning rod for criticism. A government watchdog has repeatedly criticized it for failing to catch problems. For many, Nakamoto's failures help explain why unsanitary harsh conditions at detention centers persist. Heidi Altman is policy director at the advocacy group National Immigrant Justice Center.
HEIDI ALTMAN: It's really not an exaggeration to say that there is basically no meaningful accountability or oversight for the companies who are involved.
NOGUCHI: The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general repeatedly cited Nakamoto for cutting corners, not reporting violations, conducting improper interviews and writing inaccurate reports. It also said ICE allowed it to happen. The watchdog's latest report in January reads, quote, "ICE does not adequately hold detention facility contractors accountable for not meeting performance standards."
The result, critics say, is detainees are subject to everything from solitary confinement to negligent medical care at the detention facilities. Osny Kidd says he experienced both. Last fall, Kidd spent 76 days at the detention center in Adelanto, Calif.
OSNY KIDD: I was in handcuffs from feet to waist to arms. I arrived there in chains.
NOGUCHI: Kid's Honduran mother brought him to the U.S. at age 9. Now 24, Kid was supposed to be protected from deportation under DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But ICE agents arrested him outside his apartment because of a DUI charge that was later expunged. At Adelanto, Kidd says he was held in an overcrowded room and stripped naked. He was forced to clean filthy showers. All these raise questions about whether ICE's own detention standards were violated. One day, Kidd says a guard screamed obscenities, calling him and his fellow detainees names.
KIDD: I mean, that's when I kind of lost it. I just said, you cannot call me that. You cannot treat us like animals because we're not.
NOGUCHI: For this, Kidd says he was briefly taken to a solitary confinement room called Bravo.
KIDD: In Bravo, there was nobody watching in there. You'd see people come out of there with bruises. I saw them come out of there with bruises.
NOGUCHI: Kidd filed grievances. He said he was told his claims were investigated and his complaint dismissed. ICE didn't respond to requests seeking comment on his claims. Kidd's attorney says the treatment and conditions should have alarmed inspectors, but Nakamoto inspectors reported no problems at Adelanto in 2017 and 2018. Every year since 2011, Nakamoto has inspected all ICE facilities which house adult immigrants. The last time ICE itself inspected Adelanto was in 2014. That internal review found the facility already falling short in six areas, including addressing sexual assault and detainee grievances.
ICE declined an interview, but spokeswoman Danielle Bennett says the agency has improved since the IG reports. In an email, she said senior ICE officials now accompany Nakamoto investigators during their inspections. Bennett says ICE is also holding contractors accountable. Between last December and March of this year, she says financial penalties against those contractors have totaled half a million dollars. But one former senior ICE official told me those changes are minor. The bigger problem is ICE has no incentive to acknowledge problems.
One of ICE's performance goals is for all of their detention centers to pass inspection. The former official who requested anonymity to protect future employment prospects says Nakamoto is well aware of the pressures to meet that target. Nakamoto is a private firm based outside Washington, D.C. Its Japanese American owner Jennifer Nakamoto, frequently credits her family's experiences in World War II internment camps with shaping her company's mission.
According to contracting database USAspending, the potential value of Nakamoto's contract last fiscal year was $116 million. Claudia Valenzuela is an attorney with the advocacy group American Immigration Council. She has filed lawsuits seeking information about ICE's contractors.
CLAUDIA VALENZUELA: I think there should be more public scrutiny of Nakamoto. How did it obtain the contract? How does this company continue to hold that contract? It really actually is mind boggling to me.
NOGUCHI: But Nakamoto says it stands by its performance. In an email, Mark Saunders, Nakamoto's vice president, said, quote, "we have made it abundantly clear that we are in no way political, and we have no agenda other than to do our work." He declined an interview, saying the company already addressed negative allegations.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats last fall asked Nakamoto to respond to problems raised in the IG's reports. Jennifer Nakamoto called the watchdog investigators inexperienced and their findings an embarrassment to their office. She disputed many of the facts in the reports. She highlighted how her mother was born in an internment camp, saying she and her family battled prejudice. She wrote, quote, "without question, the detained immigrant population as a whole has a better life because of what Nakamoto does."
That response hasn't mollified critics who want Nakamoto and ICE to answer for the problems. Brian Cohen is Senator Warren's oversight and investigations director.
BRIAN COHEN: And what we concluded from all this mess is that still nobody's taking responsibility.
NOGUCHI: Nakamoto's contract ends in September. ICE declined to say whether it will renew that contract.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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