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Business/Economy

Alaska Native corporations are a billion dollars deep in border control contracts

A U.S. Border Patrol truck enters the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas, June 26, 2018.  (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

WASHINGTON — Alaska Native corporations and their subsidiaries do much of the work — and reap the profits — of detaining and guarding U.S. immigrants, patrolling the nation's borders and maintaining detention centers.

Native corporations and other Alaska-based companies have taken on at least a billion dollars in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in recent years, according to a review of available government contract data from 2012 through the present.

As activists have worked toward reunifying thousands of children and their parents — some separated for months because of suspected illegal border crossings — attention has turned to the private contractors that carry out the work on behalf of the federal government.

Most media focus has been on publicly traded companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic — major players in the for-profit prison industry. But Alaska Native corporations, which have private shareholders and often opaque financial operations, play a major role in the business of immigrant detention.

Ahtna and Bering Straits Native Corp. subsidiary Global Precision Systems have millions of dollars in current contracts to provide guards and other supports to ICE.

Ahtna security guards manage journalists visiting the Port Isabel Detention Center, a Texas facility that is home to family reunification efforts, according to Molly Crabapple, a journalist documenting border hearings.

The involvement of Alaska Native corporations in immigrant detention is not new nor limited to the ramp-up under the current administration's "zero tolerance" policy. More than half a dozen Alaska Native corporations and their subsidiaries have been contracting with ICE for more than a decade. Collectively, their contracts surpassed a billion dollars from 2012 to 2017.

How much of that money is profit, and how much makes it back to Alaska Native shareholders, is unclear. The financial benefits available to Alaska Native shareholders are not made public.

The 1971 federal Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act established 13 for-profit regional corporations for Alaska Natives, now privately owned by Native shareholders. There are also more than 200 village corporations in Alaska; some have combined to create group-based corporations.

Many of them are active in the lucrative business of government contracting. Regional and village corporations are allowed, by law, to create numerous subsidiaries that can bid on government contracts all over the country. Many of them receive priority access to high-dollar, no-bid contracts as minority-owned businesses.

None of the companies contacted for this story made contracts or financial information available to the Daily News.

But some companies have faced public attention or some kind of shareholder response to ICE contracts.

Global Precision Systems has a seven-year contract to provide detention officers and transportation and food service staff to the El Paso Service Processing Center in Texas.

"As indigenous people applying strong traditional values, we at BSNC strive to ensure that all individuals who work for us and our subsidiaries, or who are placed in our care, are treated with dignity and respect," Bering Straits President Gail Schubert said in a written statement.

Bering Straits cited awards for "exemplary service" and said the corporation's main focus includes "shareholder benefits (e.g., regular and elder dividends, bereavement payments, jobs, internships, scholarships and support for nonprofit entities that provide services to our shareholders and descendants), and pursuing economic development opportunities while protecting our lands and preserving our culture and heritage."

Ahtna Native Corp. holds a contract at the Port Isabel facility, which has been at the center of news stories as a reunification center for separated families. Ahtna responded on its website to a Daily Beast story that it says wasn't accurate. Ahtna did not provide a response to additional questions from the Daily News.

"We take seriously our responsibility to provide exemplary care at (the Port Isabel Detention Center)," Ahtna said in its website statement, citing outside performance audits completed in 2017. "Our employees are taught to understand that detainees who arrive at PIDC are going through a challenging experience — and our employees take great strides to support them through this difficult process," Ahtna said.

The company disputed reports by immigrant advocates in the San Diego Union-Tribune that some officers have told detainees they must withdraw requests for asylum and agree to deportation if they want to see their children again.

Ahtna subsidiaries, like a slew of other Alaska Native corporations, held contracts with ICE prior to the Trump administration, including at Port Isabel.

Not all Native corporation contracts with ICE involve care for migrants, though the details of the contracts themselves are not available on the federal public database.

Malia Villegas, vice president of corporate affairs with the Afognak Native Corp., said she received just one shareholder inquiry about its involvement with ICE.

"Afognak Native Corporation, Alutiiq LLC and their subsidiaries do not operate any contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that involve any direct responsibility for the care or detention of adults or children," Villegas said. One current contract held by subsidiary Alutiiq Diversified Services LLC is to "provide maintenance of an ICE facility in Arizona that involves providing Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning services and other facility maintenance responsibilities."

Other companies did not respond to inquiries from the Daily News about their ICE contracts.

Companies that have had contracts over the last 15 years include NANA and subsidiaries, K'oyitl'ots'ina Ltd., Tatitlek Native Corp. subsidiary GeoNorth, Old Harbor and Barling Bay, and Doyon. Services provided to ICE included guards, housekeeping, patrols and data management, according to the government database.

Doyon previously provided security services in El Paso and Miami.

A NANA subsidiary, Akima Global Services LLC, has some of the most recent government contracts with ICE — more than $25 million for guard services in contracts signed in January, April and May of 2018.

Other organizations have a bit more distance in their government contracting. In recent years, for instance, Bowhead Support Services LLC, a subsidiary of Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., has provided data management for ICE in a series of contracts worth several million dollars.

One non-Native Anchorage-based company, Trailboss Enterprises Inc., has gained media attention for its ICE contracts in Texas. Trailboss has been providing transportation services for ICE in the San Antonio area since 2012, agency spokesman Matthew Bourke said in an email. Reached over the phone, Trailboss chief operating officer Robert Christe declined to answer questions about the company's work there.

Daily News reporter Annie Zak contributed to this story. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to make clear that some of the contracts involved have been in the past 15 years and are not necessarily current. In the case of Doyon, the story originally reported, incorrectly, that the company had a current contract with ICE. Its contract ended in 2015. 

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