By Mica Rosenberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - For a handful of U.S. companies that have exclusive or longstanding contracts with federal agencies dealing with illegal immigrants, the recent wave of children crossing the southern border with Mexico is a business opportunity.
Private prison companies Geo Group and competitor Corrections Corporation of America, for example, stand to gain if Congress approves any emergency funding for family detention facilities. The two companies have thousands of unoccupied beds in their prisons and jails that potentially could be modified to house immigrant families.
In the past six years, Geo Group was awarded nearly $880 million from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to government contracting data compiled by SmartProcure.us. In July, ICE, the agency responsible for immigration detention, modified its contract with Geo Group to convert the company's adult detention center in Karnes County, Texas to house families.
The biggest potential windfall would come if Congress approves a White House request for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to address the crisis. But such a large package seems unlikely to make it through a deeply divided Congress and a resolution looks difficult before lawmakers' leave for their summer recess.
The Obama administration has been scrambling to house tens of thousands of children mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who have flooded into the United States in recent months, hoping to escape gang violence, poverty and domestic abuse. Some are traveling with their families and others are crossing the border alone.
An ICE spokesman declined to break out the cost of the Karnes facility. Geo Group declined to comment and CCA did not respond to requests for comment.
FLIGHTS AND MONITORS
The Geo Group could also benefit if lawmakers opt for programs that promote alternatives to detention like electronic monitoring systems used to track immigrants awaiting deportation.
The company's Colorado subsidiary Bi Incorporated is ICE's sole provider of ankle bracelets for immigrants who have been caught for violating immigration laws but released while their cases are being processed. Bi has earned more than $211 million from ICE since 2008 by providing GPS tracking devices and case managers for the immigrants, according to the same government contracting data.
A Senate bill proposed by Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake would mandate the monitors for juveniles 15 to 18 years old while their immigration hearings are pending. ICE does not currently use ankle bracelets for juveniles, the agency said. The bill does not specify a supplier.
ICE uses the New Mexico-based CSI Aviation to provide charter flights for deportations. The company has won more than $657 million in contracts from ICE since 2008, SmartProcure data shows. CSI referred all questions about its contracts to ICE. ICE said the company is the sole contractor for ICE Air, which conducts deportation flights.
President Barack Obama has vowed to swiftly return the children and other illegal migrants from Central America to their home countries. That could mean an increase in the number of ICE charter flights in the coming months.
The federal government has also been buying tickets on American Airlines for commercial flights to shuttle unaccompanied kids and immigrant families to detention facilities or shelters around the United States.
American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller declined to say how much the government has spent on these flights or how many tickets they have purchased. He said American did not have formal contracts and that the tickets were being purchased on an as-needed basis.
SHELTERS, SOCIAL WORKERS AND INTERPRETERS
Contracts to provide services and emergency supplies for children arriving without their family members are handled mostly by the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, which is legally responsible for kids that cross the border alone.
The agency - tasked with sheltering unaccompanied children and then placing them quickly into homes of relatives or family friends - says it spends between $250 and $1,000 on each unaccompanied child per day. More than 57,000 have arrived since October, according to the U.S. Border Patrol, and the government estimates that number could rise to 90,000 by the end of September.
HHS has turned to General Dynamics Information Technology, or GDIT, a unit of the defense contracting giant General Dynamics, to supply case-management services for kids being released from temporary shelters, a Reuters review of government contracts found. The job entails reviewing children's cases to identify if they have special needs and to ensure the kids are being transferred to safe homes.
Since 2010, GDIT has won around $13 million in contracts to help the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of HHS, coordinate the placement of unaccompanied minors, according to the contracting data.
The company recently put out a flurry of online job advertisements seeking bilingual social workers to handle immigrant children's cases in Arizona, Texas, California, Florida, Georgia and New York.
A GDIT spokesman said the company "offers expertise in various areas, including ... social work specializing in protective services and human rights." He declined to elaborate.
Some government contracts have gone to businesses that provide emergency clothing and supplies for the youth shelters and for translation services used in asylum hearings and immigration courts.
Lionsbridge Technologies, a translation company from Waltham, Massachusetts, has seen government need for its services "heighten over the past 60 to 90 days" as courts scramble to wade through the flood of immigration cases, said Eric Munz a vice president at Lionsbridge.
The company provides over-the-phone and in-person interpreters, including for obscure indigenous languages spoken in small Mexican and Central American communities.
And then there are companies like Products Unlimited, a small outfit in Justin, Texas that depends wholly on government work. The contracting data shows it was awarded about $40,000 worth of contracts so far this year to provide diapers and pull-ups for babies and toddlers at an immigrant processing center in Houston and a federally-run family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico.
(Additional reporting by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago and Richard Cowan in Washington, editing by Amy Stevens and Ross Colvin)