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As immigration advocates demand Newsom cancel contract with border wall company, lawmakers stay silent

The California State Capitol in Sacramento August 28, 2020.
Andrew Nixon
The California State Capitol in Sacramento August 28, 2020.

Immigration advocates are calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to terminate a $350 million COVID-19 response contract the state awarded to a company that built sections of former president Donald Trump’s border wall in California

Immigration advocates are calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to terminate a $350 million COVID-19 response contract the state awarded to a company that built sections of former president Donald Trump’s border wall in California.

“If the state of California really wants to uphold the values that uplift the dignity of migrants and the journeys they've made, I think it would be important for [the state] to rescind the contract,” said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program.

Arecent CapRadio investigation revealed the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) awarded the no-bid contract to a subsidiary of SLSCO, a company that earned hundreds of millions of dollars building walls along California’s southern border. CDPH indicated in an email it will keep the contract, though it refused to give a definitive “yes” or “no” in response to multiple inquiries. Meanwhile, state lawmakers remained quiet on the issue.

SLSCO provided thousands of health care staff to help assist California’s vaccination effort. The state sent some of those personnel to border sites, where they tested and vaccinated nearly 60,000 migrants. Other staff went to clinics led by community health groups that aimed to reach undocumented Californians.

The revelation frustrated immigration advocates. They said awarding such a large contract to a company that profited off of building border walls undermines the Newsom administration’s commitment to support immigrant and undocumented communities, especially during the pandemic. Advocates argued it could also jeopardize the trust that community organizations have fostered with these underserved groups.

“They should cancel the contract and there should be the proper due diligence in awarding” future contracts, said Hamid Yazdan Panah, advocacy director for Immigrant Defense Advocates.

In an email, CDPH said eliminating its work at the border “would be devastating to the safety and well-being of arriving migrants and border communities.”

“At a difficult and uncertain time for vulnerable communities, CDPH – in partnership with community based organizations and local governments – relied on contractors that were willing and able to provide services at the scale needed to protect the well-being of migrants and border communities,” the statement said.

Newsom’s office did not respond to an interview request.

SLSCO has declined CapRadio’s interview requests. In response to the original investigation, spokesperson Liz Rogers said the company has been “honored to respond to CDPH’s call for support during the last year.”

Trump’s border wall construction in California spurred a strong, adverse reaction from Newsom. He described it as “political theater” when pulling Nation Guards troops from the border. And the state filed a lawsuit against the former president — shortly after Newsom entered office — aiming to halt construction at the border, including projects by SLSCO.

Edwin Carmona-Cruz, director of community engagement at the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, said handing SLSCO a no-bid contract worth $350 million felt like “historical amnesia.”

“How could you forget ... what this corporation did?” he said. ”The state speaks by how it funds its work. And right now, they're not putting their money where their mouth is.”

He added that Newsom “relied on community-based organizations, immigrants and families that are mixed-status … to save him from the recall.”

“And now he has turned his back on the community,” Carmona-Cruz said.

State lawmakers stayed quiet on the issue, including ones who have advocated for stronger support and more services for immigrant communities during the pandemic. Some declined CapRadio’s interview requests, while others did not respond.

Assemblymember Robert Rivas, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez and Senator Melissa Hurtado — all Democrats — declined to comment.

Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, Senator Anna Caballero and Senator Maria Elena Durazo — all Democrats — did not respond to a request for comment.

CapRadio also requested comment from the Assembly and Senate Republican Caucuses and the California Latino Legislative Caucus. None responded.

Copyright 2021 CapRadio