The U.S. government spends billions of dollars to “resettle” foreign nationals and transparency on how the money is spent depends on the agency involved. Judicial Watch has been investigating it for years, specifically the huge amount of taxpayer dollars that go to “voluntary agencies”, known as VOLAGs, to provide a wide range of services for the new arrivals. Throughout the ongoing probe, Judicial Watch has found a striking difference on how government lawyers use an exemption, officially known as (b)(4), to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to withhold records. All the cases involve public funds being used to resettle foreigners on U.S. soil and Americans should be entitled to the records.
The (b)(4) exemption permits agencies to withhold trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person which is privileged or confidential. Depending on the government agency and the mood of the taxpayer-funded lawyers handling public records requests, that information is exempt from disclosure. In these cases, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) disclosed a VOLAG contract to resettle tens of thousands of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) that entered the U.S. through Mexico under the Obama administration while the State Department withheld large portions of a one-year, $22.8 million deal to resettle refugees from Muslim countries. Most of the UACs came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and the Obama administration blamed the sudden surge on violence in the three central American nations. The agency responsible for resettling the minors and issuing contracts for the costly services is HHS.
As a result of Judicial Watch’s work HHS furnished records with virtually nothing redacted. Disclosed were employee salaries of VOLAGs contracted by the agency to provide services for the illegal immigrant minors, the cost of laptops, big screen TVs, food, pregnancy tests, “multicultural crayons” and shower stalls for the new arrivals. The general contract was to provide “basic shelter care” for 2,400 minors for a period of four months in 2014. This cost American taxpayers an astounding $182,129,786 and the VOLAG contracted to do it was government regular called Baptist Children and Family Services (BCFS). The breakdown includes charges of $104,215,608 for UACs at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and an additional $77,914,178 for UACs at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
HHS rightfully provided all sorts of details in the records, including the cost of emergency surge beds ($104,215,608) for just four months; food for the illegal alien minors and staff ($18,198,000); medical supplies such as first aid kits, latex gloves, lice shampoo and pregnancy tests ($1,120,400); recreation items such as board games, soccer balls and jump ropes ($180,000); educational items like art paper and multicultural crayons ($180,000); laptops ($200,000) and cellphones ($160,000). Hotel accommodations for the BCFS staff was $6,765,000, the records show, and the salary for a 30-member “Incident Management Team” was $2,648,800, which breaks down to $88,293 per IMT member for the four-month period. It was outrageous that the Obama administration spent nearly $200 million of taxpayer funds to provide illegal alien children with the types of extravagant high-tech equipment and lavish benefits many American families cannot even afford for their own children.
This has become a heated issue for the government which may explain why other agencies aren’t as forthcoming in providing specific figures, thus abusing the (b)(4) exemption. The State Department, for instance, redacted huge portions of records involving contracts with VOLAGs to resettle refugees from mostly Muslim countries. The files illustrate the disparate redaction treatment given by different government agencies to the same types of records. The State Department paid a VOLAG called United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) a ghastly $22,838,173 in one year to resettle refugees that came mostly from Muslim countries. Unlike HHS, the agency redacted information related to what the USCCB charged the government for things like furniture, personnel, equipment and other costs associated with contracts to resettle refugees. Why did one government agency hand over the same types of records that another agency claims are trade secrets? Judicial Watch is challenging the State Department’s (b)(4) exemption and will provide updates as they become available.
HHS and the State Department work with nine VOLAGs to resettle refugees and the voluntary agencies have hundreds of contractors they like to call “affiliates.” It’s a huge racket that costs American taxpayers monstrous sums and Judicial Watch is working to pinpoint the exact amount. Besides BCFS and USCCB, other VOLAGs with lucrative government gigs to resettle refugees are: Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services and World Relief Corporation.
Tom Fitton is president and board member of Judicial Watch, from where this article is adapted.