A Texas nonprofit has received nearly half a billion dollars from the U.S. government this year to operate shelters for undocumented immigrant children who have been separated from their parents.
That's nearly half the money allocated so far this year for the federal unaccompanied alien children program, which is at the center of a raging debate over the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy for people crossing the border illegally.
The Austin-based nonprofit, Southwest Key Inc., has made $1.5 billion from the federal government in the last decade, according to U.S. Health and Human Services data.
The nonprofit says it runs 26 immigrant children’s shelters in Texas, Arizona and California. Of those, 17 are in Texas, according to state Department of Health and Human Services records.
Southwest Key has received nearly $459 million of the $943 million spent nationwide this year. That’s up from nearly $30 million in fiscal 2008 and nearly $285 million last year.
The nonprofit's federal money for children is allocated for home studies and release services, as well as for shelters.
Among the shelters is Casa Padre, a former Walmart in Brownsville that houses immigrant children the government separated from their parents after they entered the U.S. illegally.
Although the the amount the government paid to Southwest Key has grown since Donald Trump was elected, it also increased during the Obama administration.
Funding rose in 2015 when the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border surged.
Now that the Trump administration has implemented a policy of prosecuting anyone for the misdemeanor crime of crossing the border illegally, children are being separated from their parents while the adults await prosecution.
Under previous administrations, families remained together unless authorities found signs of abuse or other evidence that children were at risk with their parents. Previously, Southwest Key mainly housed unaccompanied minors.
It’s unclear how or when the children will be reunited with their parents.
The shelters in Texas are in Harris, El Paso, Cameron, Bexar and Montgomery counties.
Southwest Key is trying to open another facility in Houston, but the city’s mayor is fighting against turning a warehouse into a temporary shelter
“There comes a time when we must say, 'This is wrong,'” Sylvester Turner said on Twitter. “We must not sanitize ourselves into thinking that carrying out the policy in Houston is acceptable.”
But this issue unlike all others in government and politics is different because it involves our children. There comes a time when we must say this is wrong. We must not sanitize ourselves into thinking that carrying out the policy in Houston is acceptable. #KeepFamiliesTogether— Sylvester Turner (@SylvesterTurner) June 19, 2018
Turner later tweeted that Southwest Key was reconsidering the facility.
State Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, has asked the state not to issue a license to Southwest Key because of its previous violations.
A Texas Health and Human Services spokesman said no other companies or organizations are seeking to open facilities in the state. But more facilities may be needed as the Trump administration continues its policy of separating children and parents.
Given the 13 inspection deficiencies found at Southwest Key Programs' Brownsville childcare facility, I have called on the Department of Family and Protective Services to halt the issuance of a license for a proposed Houston child detention center. #TXLege #FamilesBelongTogether pic.twitter.com/arFbt7Eny5— Ana Hernandez (@AnaHdzTx) June 18, 2018
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has spoken out against separating immigrant families but has said the city will help house children if necessary.
"The separation of a child from a parent who has entered our country to seek asylum is cruel and unconscionable," Rawlings said.
It’s unclear whether Southwest Key would run any shelters opened in Dallas.
Southwest Key did not respond to requests for comment.
The nonprofit’s president and CEO, Juan Sanchez, made more than $1.5 million in 2016, according to publicly available tax returns. That’s an increase from 2013, when he earned $466,000.
Sanchez grew up poor in the border town of Brownsville, “where life was full of challenges,” according to a 2007 Southwest Key annual report.
After earning a doctorate in education from Harvard University, he returned to Texas, where he was the director of a residential treatment center.
Sanchez began Southwest Key in 1987 in Austin, and within 20 years it became “one of the country’s largest care providers for unaccompanied immigrant children and juvenile justice system-involved youth,” the annual report says.
The nonprofit also operates two schools and programs for children in the juvenile justice system.
In the 2007 report, Sanchez noted a significant increase in demand for shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children.
“These young refugees are coming across the border without guardians, homeless and in need of a variety of special support,” he said. “We opened over 100 new shelter beds this year, making Southwest Key the largest provider of services for these children in the country. We have been extremely successful reuniting these children with their families at home and abroad.”
The following year, 2008, the federal government began funding the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program and Southwest Key grew further.
Casa Padre, in a former Walmart in Brownsville, is one of several facilities in Texas where the nonprofit Southwest Key houses children removed from their parents after crossing the border illegally.
(Loren Elliott /Getty Images)
Southwest Key's Texas shelters took in 11,100 minors in fiscal 2017, which ended last September. From October until earlier this month, its shelters had taken in more than 11,900.
Texas regulators found more than 150 violations at more than a dozen shelters run by Southwest Key in the last two years.
Violations included reports of a supervisor using poor judgment and escalating a situation that resulted in a girl harming herself. The nonprofit also was cited for failing to lock up medicines and cleaning supplies, as well as for not documenting when children received medicine.
Regulators also said the nonprofit had not run background checks on some staff members.
At one Southwest Key shelter, a child with a sexually transmitted disease did not receive treatment for two weeks, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
A Southwest Key spokeswoman, Cindy Casares, has said the nonprofit is pleased with its overall record and takes action when a staff member isn’t up to the job.
“In the last three years, Southwest Key UM shelter programs 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,” she said in a written statement. “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.”
One former Southwest Key employee has drawn national attention in the last week for his allegation that he had been ordered to separate three siblings who were hugging at a shelter for undocumented children in Arizona. Antar Davidson said the incident made him realize his time working with Southwest Key needed to end.
“I was told that they should not be able to hug,” Davidson told CNN about the incident involving a girl and her two brothers. “And [I] basically realized that being in Southwest Key ... despite the good I was doing, would mean that I had basically come up to doing things I felt were morally wrong.”
Correction, 9:15 a.m., June 20, 2018: An earlier version of this story misstated how much the federal government has spent on children separated from their parents so far this year.