Austin nonprofit under fire for housing thousands of migrant children


Highlights

Southwest Key Programs operates 27 shelters for immigrant children in three states. Sixteen are in Texas.

The nonprofit has asked state regulators for permission to take in more children as it nears capacity.

Even as it’s being criticized for taking in children separated from their parents crossing without legal permission at the southern border, an Austin-based nonprofit that runs 16 shelters in Texas is asking state regulators for permission to house more children.

Southwest Key Programs perhaps is best known locally for its education programs, including East Austin College Prep, a public charter school in East Austin. But the nonprofit also runs youth justice and wellness programs, along with 27 immigrant children shelters in Texas, Arizona and California. Since 1997, the nonprofit has taken in thousands of children who arrived in the country alone.

After U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy and promised to prosecute anyone who enters the U.S. illegally, which meant removing children from adults, shelter operators contracting with the federal government including Southwest Key saw an influx of children separated from their parents. Since the policy took effect, about 2,000 children have been separated from parents along the entire length of the border, according to reports.

RELATED: Texas groups push back against family separation policy at the border

Last month, Southwest Key was housing more than half of the 4,204 immigrant children at facilities in Texas with contracts with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to the most recent state data available. The data didn’t differentiate between unaccompanied children and those separated from their families.

Shelters run by Southwest Key are mostly near the border. None are in Central Texas.

Critics have urged Southwest Key and other shelter operators to refuse to take in children separated from their parents.

Musician and activist Sara Hickman said she attended a ceremony honoring Austin bombing victim Draylen Mason, who was a student at East Austin College Prep, and heard Juan Sánchez, CEO of Southwest Key, speak. Impressed by his remarks, she went online to learn more about him and was surprised when she discovered that the organization operates shelters for the federal government.

“He came across as someone who cares about families being reunited, when in actuality, he is someone who is tearing these families apart,” Hickman said. “How cruel could you be to do that? … These people are already traumatized, and they arrive at our border and then they have their children ripped away.”

Southwest Key spokeswoman Cindy Casares said: “Southwest Key has been caring for unaccompanied immigrant children for 20 years. We operate licensed child care facilities and are proud of our excellent record in the field of immigrant child care.”

Southwest Key found itself at the epicenter of the family separations story earlier this month, when U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was denied entry to one of its facilities in Brownsville. After the Merkley episode, the San Antonio Express-News reported that Texas found 150 health violations at child immigrant shelters. In a statement, Southwest Key stood by its track record of housing children.

“As a 24-hour child care provider licensed by the State of Texas, Southwest Key Programs has served 23,000 children over the last two years in our Texas unaccompanied minor shelters,” Casares said in a statement. “In the last three years, Southwest Key (unaccompanied minor) shelter programs in Texas have been evaluated for compliance on 73,292 standards and we are proud to say that less than 1 percent of those resulted in a deficiency. However, we take each of the deficiencies seriously by self-reporting to invite external investigations as well as performing our own internal investigations. When called for, staff have been terminated or retrained as we continue to strive for excellence in the services we provide to the children entrusted to our care.”

RELATED: Even before Trump threat, mothers and children separated at the border

The family separation practice has drawn condemnation from Austin-area Democrats and religious leaders.

“We always have advocated on behalf of family unity, and we want parents and children to be together, because the family is the foundation of our society,” Joe Vásquez, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Austin, told the American-Statesman on Monday. “Jesus speaks about responding to the needs of the poor, and the hungry, the sick. He mentions the immigrant. ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.’ The church’s teaching has been very clear that we welcome the stranger, we treat them with respect. We always see that as part of our Christian values.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the policy last week. It was the No. 1 issue during the group’s June meeting, Vásquez said.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he was investigating the strain the policy puts on state resources to ensure that the children are kept in safe conditions.

“I think for the average American and the average Texan, it is unacceptable and inexplicable that our government is separating children from their families,” he said. “And I think that that’s frankly forcing the hand of the federal government to not do this in secret.”



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