WASHINGTON — A Japanese American-owned company is at the center of the controversy over substandard conditions at immigrant detention centers.
Nakamoto Group, a contractor hired by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to inspect its facilities, has been repeatedly criticized by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general for cutting corners on its investigations, conducting improper interviews, and producing inaccurate reports, according to a July 17 report by National Public Radio’s Yuki Noguchi.
NPR quoted the inspector general as saying, “ICE does not adequately hold detention facility contractors accountable for not meeting performance standards.”
Problems at the centers, including one in Adelanto, San Bernardino County, include overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, inadequate medical care, and the use of solitary confinement as punishment.
Despite grievances filed over harsh treatment at Adelanto, Nakamoto Group — which has been under contract to inspect more than 100 ICE facilities for eight years — found no problems there in 2017 and 2018.
Nikkei Progressives and other Japanese American immigrant rights advocates have compared the current treatment of asylum-seekers under the Trump Administration to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. They are especially angry at Nakamoto Group’s participation, saying it is an affront to the memory of those who were put in concentration camps.
The company’s president, Jennifer Nakamoto, has said that her mother was born in one of those camps.
Following is Nakamoto’s statement before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Management, and Accountability on Sept. 26. The topic of the hearing was “ICE Detention Facilities: Is DHS Doing Enough?” The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.); the ranking member is Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas).
Family background: “The Nakamoto Group is a woman-owned, minority-owned small disadvantaged business, headquartered in Frederick County, Maryland. My great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Japan. My maternal grandparents were both born in California, making them U.S. citizens. After Pearl Harbor, a presidential order was issued to incarcerate all Japanese regardless of their citizenship status. My maternal family were living in California and had to relinquish all of their property including any businesses that they had. They were given one trash bag to fill of personal items to take with them and had to leave everything else behind. Our family was spread out to various internment camps across the country.
“My maternal grandparents were incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona. They were there long enough to meet, fall in love, get married, have a baby, my mother, and become pregnant again with my aunt. Since they had to start over, they were offered employment at a food processing factory before they were released and they chose to move to a small town called Seabrook in southern New Jersey, where ultimately I was born.
“My father was born and raised in Hilo, Hawaii. My grandfather returned to Japan soon after he was born. My father was the youngest in a large broken home and he was raised by several of his older brothers. My father served more than 20 years in the United States Army, served 2 tours during Vietnam and served on what was one of the first all-Japanese American Green Beret units.
“Upon his retirement from Ft. Ritchie, Md., we relocated to Frederick, Md., where I grew up. Because my parents did not have a lot of money, I worked during high school and have been working since I was 15 years old. Shortly after high school, I was able to obtain a secretarial job in the government at the Department of Health and Human Services. I worked there for six years before leaving to work for three other successful minority-owned government contractor firms.
“I learned about government contracting during those 7 years and I decided to take a chance and start my own company. I started this company in 2003. It was the same year that I lost my late husband to police suicide. I still volunteer for his Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #91 and have volunteered for them over 20 years serving as the executive assistant to the Executive Board.”
Government contracts: “The Nakamoto Group, Inc. was certified in the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program in 2004, and successfully graduated the certification in 2013. The first contract awarded to my company was in 2004, to maintain a hotline entitled Insure Kids Now, which is a hotline that provides either free or low-cost healthcare to kids through the State’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, within the U.S. and its territories. We still maintain that contract after 15 years and now it also includes another hotline entitled 311-Baby, which helps expectant and new mothers by providing information via phone …
“For the last 15 years, we have obtained logistics contracts with the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. From 2006-2007 we had a contract with the Food and Drug Administration to help them hire Hispanics to increase diversity … We continue to provide logistics support for FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation Research advisory committees.
“Our most current and long-standing logistics contracts has been with the Office of Rural Health Policy to run logistics for their National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services. We also provided logistics support for several of their policy meetings regarding telehealth in rural America …
“In 2005, we obtained a contract with the now dissolved Office of the Federal Detention Trustee … under the Department of Justice. We won a place within a Blanket Purchase Agreement to provide detention expert support services to the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee … We sent teams to provide an expert specialized service consultation by conducting facility reviews of non-federal contract jails and detention facilities which housed U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.
“In 2007, we were asked to attend a meeting at ICE Headquarters, where we were asked to perform on-site monitoring services and to provide monthly technical assistance and included full-time monitors for 40 of the largest ICE detention facilities and monthly, quarterly, and bi-annual reviews of other smaller ICE detention facilities. The goal was to ensure that the facilities were in compliance with the standards …
“In 2009, we won a full and open competition to perform these same duties for five years … In 2010, the government chose not to exercise any more years of the contract and instead chose to in-source that program. In effect, terminating our contract. As a result, Nakamoto laid off over 150 employees and absorbed over $100,000 worth of contract closing costs. Due to those costs, I was on the brink of losing my company altogether. We stayed afloat only because of the hard work of the few determined and dedicated staff that I had left.
“Also in 2007, my company was approached by ICE and the Juvenile Family Residential Unit to help them coordinate a cadre of experts … to create the standards for JFRMU and to inspect the family residential facilities. We held that contract from 2007-2015.”
Response to critics: “I am telling you my story to ensure that the correct story goes on record today. Recently, because of our association with the Department of Homeland Security, I have been personally attacked via social media and news outlets; attacks that have disparaged my mother, who passed away in 2008; myself; and my heritage. We have been victimized by inaccurate accountings of our work, I can only guess, for the purpose of discrediting ICE.
“Fortunately, the facts speak for themselves and we have factually refuted every negative assertion against us. Nevertheless, some have chosen to ignore the facts and continue to reference disproven allegations for their political purposes and to further their agenda against ICE. Because of my background and upbringing, I insist that this company be diverse and multicultural for employees and clients alike, always ensuring that the principles of fairness and equity are our priorities.
“We have less than 15 full-time employees and 45 part-time employees at any given time. The majority of my employees, who are inspectors, have an average of over 35 years of detention monitoring experience. In the years since 2003, we have worked hard and have succeeded in building a reputation of a conscientious company that provides great value and service to our clients.
“As president of the company, I involve myself with overseeing the various employees that manage our contracts, provide our administrative support, and perform human resource and budgetary functions. I do not necessarily work day-to-day with any specific contract. The ICE annual inspection contract has a very specific Statement of Work that provides the direction and methods for us to conduct inspections. We have no room or opportunity for variance from the provisions of the contract …
“We use the set as specified by the contract between each individual facility and ICE. We may inspect as many as 42 standards with as many as 680 components, and never less than 39 standards with 641 components. Every requirement of every standard is inspected no less than annually at every qualifying facility. Qualifying facilities are primarily those who house ICE detainees for longer than 72 hours and house more than 50 ICE detainees.
“ICE requires an exhaustive inspection of processes, policies, services, and privileges during every inspection. They also demand that the results are documented as required by the Statement of Work. While the standards do not specifically address every aspect of a facility operation, the great majority of potential liabilities are scrutinized. Those issues not specifically covered by a component within a standard are always reviewed by my inspectors. Those issues not specifically covered by the standards are included in a general sense, as quality-of-life issues, and reported on as such.
“In 2017, we were asked by the Immigration Health Service Corp. to also provide an additional medical expert to review the medical records to determine whether or not the detainees held at the facility have had access to medical services in accordance with best practices.
“To the question posed within the title of this hearing, ‘Oversight of ICE Detention Facilities: Is DHS Doing Enough?’ From our perspective, YES, ICE is efficient and thorough in their oversight of detention facilities as far as the annual inspection contract goes, which is the extent of our knowledge.”
Tsuru for Solidarity said that it “vehemently condemns Ms. Nakamoto’s misuse of Japanese American history in her efforts to justify the company’s complicity and profiteering off of the mass incarceration of immigrants.”
The statement continues, “The Nakamoto Group conducts detention facility inspections nationwide for ICE, and has been repeatedly criticized for rubber-stamping dangerous and inhumane conditions in these facilities. In response to prior congressional scrutiny, Ms. Nakamoto invoked her family’s experience of Japanese incarceration to shield herself from criticism.”
Satsuki Ina, Tsuru for Solidarity Steering Committee co-chair, said, “It is appalling that Ms. Nakamoto is invoking our shared history and trauma as Japanese Americans to justify her profit-seeking and to fend off legitimate inquiries into the inhumane treatment of people in ICE custody. We reject Ms. Nakamoto’s statements in the strongest terms. She does not speak for us or for other Japanese Americans.
“I was a child prisoner in a U.S. concentration camp during World War II. The commonalities between what I experienced and what children suffer in detention today are what spurred me to take action to shut down ICE’s modern-day concentration camps. Japanese American ancestry should never be used as an excuse for complicity in such abuses.”
Ina, 75, was born at the Tule Lake concentration camp, where her parents were sent for protesting their unjust incarceration. She is professor emeritus at CSU Sacramento and has a private psychotherapy practice specializing in community trauma.
Tsuru for Solidarity is planning a “National Pilgrimage to Close the Camps” in Washington, D.C. in June 2020.
18 Million Rising (18MR.org), an Asian American civil rights group, said in a statement, “Japanese American survivors of World War II prison camps are leading a movement to stop the Trump Administration from incarcerating immigrant children and families.
“But Jennifer Nakamoto … has turned her back on her community and history. Instead, she chooses to profit off the Trump Administration’s mass incarceration of immigrant families.
“The Nakamoto Group is raking in profits under the guise of inspecting ICE facilities for safety and cleanliness. But instead of holding ICE accountable, the Nakamoto Group has contributed to the deaths of multiple people held in ICE detention.
“ICE’s own death reviews concluded that substandard medical care was a contributing factor in the patients’ deaths. But Nakamoto’s inspections before and after the deaths failed to acknowledge and often dismissed violations of ICE medical standards. They’ve helped ICE and the private prisons sweep the agency’s own death review findings under the rug.
“The Nakamoto Group has a long record of signing off on deadly conditions. In 2012, Nakamoto inspectors gave Eloy Detention Center in Arizona a satisfactory rating on suicide prevention. Three years later, Eloy had not even adopted a written suicide prevention plan, and a 31-year-old man named Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun committed suicide in his cell after Eloy’s staff decided he was not an acute suicide risk.
“When Congress investigated the company, Jennifer Nakamoto tried to brush off criticism by writing a letter about how she was being discriminated against as ‘a hard-working minority woman.’ She wrote extensively of her family being “forced into internment camps” and her mother who ‘was born in a Japanese internment camp.’ Her manipulative use of her family history to excuse her actions is despicable.
“Had Nakamoto condemned the safety of the camps, they could have saved the lives of people who died and be on the right side of history. But instead, Jennifer Nakamoto and her company have chosen to use our collective trauma to rinse the blood from their hands.
“ICE imprisons more than 55,000 people across the country on a daily basis. They use Nakamoto’s inspections to determine whether they’ll maintain or cancel contracts with private prisons and jails. Those inspections may soon also permit ICE to self-certify its prisons as safe for children …
“It is offensive to use the story of Japanese American incarceration to justify her work. As members of the Japanese American community and as allies and co-conspirators, we denounce her profiteering and blame-shifting.”