How a San Antonio nonprofit became a major player in migrant detention

Some lawmakers question if conflict of interest is at play in Endeavors’ recent ICE contract to operate a facility for immigrant youth.

By Alexandra HartOctober 21, 2021 7:45 am,

This year has seen a jump in the number of illegal crossings at the southern border. About 1.5 million people have been apprehended during the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September – a 325% increase over the previous year.

As more immigrants arrive at the border, the challenge for federal agencies becomes where to house them. That’s led to a rise in temporary detention centers in Texas. One San Antonio nonprofit, Endeavors, has quickly become a major player in the immigrant detention industry. And some lawmakers are questioning whether a conflict of interest is at play.

Brendan Gibbons is a reporter for the San Antonio Report. He said the organization originally focused mainly on services for veterans and homeless populations, but has been expanding into migrant services in recent years.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity — and updated to reflect a few errors in transcription.

Texas Standard: Tell us about this nonprofit, Endeavors. What’s their history and what do they aim to do?

Brendan Gibbons: Endeavors has been a nonprofit in San Antonio since the late 1960s. It was formed by a collection of Christian churches here, and their primary focus throughout their history has been on serving veterans and the homeless and then places where those kind of intersect. They have had some experience working with migrant populations in the past and through agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Office of Refugee Resettlement. The latter focuses on migrant youths, people under 18, Endeavors has never had a large contract like the one that received this year to build a major detention center in West Texas. So that was new for the company, and that’s something it was awarded without the standard bidding process earlier this year.

This shift to working in immigrant detention is fairly recent – within the past two years or so for the company. And then this big contract, what’s going on there?

Endeavors received two contracts from Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Refugee Resettlement. One was for $87 million from ICE to house migrant families in hotels. And it tends to be a fairly small number at any given time in any given hotel. These have been in Cotulla, [Texas], El Paso and in Arizona. And thousands of people have been sheltered there before going on to either be reunited with other family members and eventually released. The bigger contract was in excess of $300 million, worth up to maybe $570 million at full payout. And that was to build the Pecos Emergency Influx Center in Pecos, Texas. It’s a former oil and gas hub. And the facility itself used to be a housing area for oil and gas workers, so it’s been converted since then into this facility that houses thousands of migrant youth at once.

You said the contract itself raised some eyebrows, but immigration advocates are concerned about this facility in general. What are some of their concerns?

There [have] been conflicting narratives that have come out about conditions at this place. There’s only one immigration advocacy group that I’ve been able to find that has really had a permanent presence inside of Pecos, and that’s RAICES – Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services – based here in San Antonio. Earlier this summer, the director of RAICES had written this pretty scathing report about what he claimed the conditions were like there. Endeavors really disputes that. It actually says that this person who is no longer with RAICES, Jonathan Ryan, never really toured the facility. And [they] really disputed a lot of the claims about things like hot, boring, overcrowded conditions with poor food and not the best access to case management services.

What I could see in some of the legal filings for firm integration groups interested in this place was that they were concerned about how long children were staying there. So there’s a legal settlement that [says] that migrant children are not to be kept in a facility that doesn’t have a state child care license for more than 20 days. And when these groups had written their legal filings back in August or so, it had shown that there are many people – dozens of children – who’d been staying there upwards of two months at a time. Last I looked at that data, that had decreased a bit so people were not staying inside Pecos that long it’s shortened a bit.

What about the concerns about conflict of interest – looking back to how the contracts were awarded to Endeavors to operate this facility?

This is focused mostly on one figure an employee of Endeavors, Andrew Lorenzen-Strait. He formerly worked at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where his job had been finding different alternatives to traditional ICE detention under the Trump administration. So he later left, started working at Endeavors. Before that, he had worked for a time on the the Biden administration’s transition team. Pretty soon after he had come to Endeavors, it came out that they had received this very large contract from ICE to house immigrants in hotels.

And that pretty quickly became fodder in the Washington political press. And there was a lot of stories coming out from the Washington Examiner questioning his role in obtaining this contract. And you saw a lot of Republican members of the U.S. House raising these issues about whether this contract was awarded because of this conflict of interest. There’s been no official prognosis on that yet. The Office of the Inspector General confirmed to me that they were evaluating how Endeavors was selected through that contract, how ICE selected Endeavors for that contract. But that is something that they do a lot, for a lot of different kinds of contracts of this size, so it’s unclear what the outcome of that is going to be.

We heard that Endeavors denies the claims that the Pecos facility was unfit in any way. Has there been any other response from them that we should highlight?

They pointed me towards a an op-ed written in our local newspaper in San Antonio from a pastor who had toured the site with with several other clergy members here and he had praised Endeavors for the job that they were doing. He had written that the children are benefiting from a level of care and range of programs that “far exceeded my expectations.”

It is interesting, you know, in a facility like this — there’s just not that many outside eyes that get to look in, from the media, especially, and general public. There are immigration groups there. A lot there have been clergy there. Politicians, including one local congressman, have toured it. So it’s fairly unclear why the former director of RAICES had written the statement, saying those conditions at Pecos were some of the worst he’d seen in his career. I reached out to them multiple times and then contacted him personally, and I just was never able to have a conversation with him about why he had written that and what the basis for that was. Again, the affidavits from the children themselves don’t speak to poor living conditions. One of them – a teen girl – had written that “the staff were kind to us and treated us well.” But she had a lot of anxiety about when she could get out and be reunited. It was confusion about the case management process that came through most strongly in these reports from the children themselves that I read.

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