Shelter holds tour in challenge to claims of ill treatment
BROWNSVILLE — After a week of speculation about the treatment of immigrant children kept behind the windowless walls of the largest shelter for minors in the nation, the nonprofit that operates the facility on Wednesday held a tour, hoping to dispel the rumors.
“We take great care of kids,” said Juan Sanchez, the president and CEO of Southwest Key. “Our goal is to reunify these children with their families.”
Nearly 1,500 kids spread across the sprawling floor plan of a remodeled Walmart dined on chicken, mashed potatoes, fruit and vegetables, even as a movie theater at the opposite end of the building showed the Walt Disney film “Moana” in Spanish.
A recent uptick in unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.Mexico border — 6,405 in May — has pushed shelter occupancy to 1,469, just a few kids shy of its maximum capacity of 1,497.
Officials at the boys-only facility say the majority of these children were traveling alone and were not separated from parents at the border. The kids are 10-17 and most come from Central America, although there were a few from India and China.
Casa Padre and other shelters have drawn interest from congressional leaders and immigrant advocates as hundreds of children have been separated from their parents along the U.S.-Mexico border under President Donald Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
The officials at Casa Padre de-
clined to comment on that policy.
“What we are about, and we do it very well, is we take care of kids,” Sanchez said.
The shelter has had to make adjustments in recent weeks to accommodate new arrivals, adding an additional portable bed to bedrooms that already have four single beds.
When a child arrives at the Brownsville shelter, he or she receives a health care screening and meets with a case worker, who contacts parents and a potential sponsor in the United States, ideally a family member.
Children are placed with relatives or put into a federal foster care system, a process that is overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
New arrivals are kept apart from the general population for a period of 48 hours until their medical exams are completed.
Southwest Key maintains a ratio of one case manager for every eight kids, and one clinician for every 12 kids. There are also 48 medical staff and three on-call physicians, Sanchez said. Overall, the facility has 1,267 employees.
Mixed mural response
The 250,000 square-foot building has classrooms where kids take six hours of instruction Monday through Friday. Currently they are learning about the U.S. branches of government.
The children are released two hours per day for outdoor activity, and taken on excursions around Brownsville. Recreation rooms offer billiards and video games, and colorful murals of U.S. presidents adorn the walls.
Not all of the shelter’s residents have responded positively to Trump’s mural.
“Each shelter is decorated to be child friendly, and education is a component we try to incorporate into all our programming,” said spokeswoman Cindy Casares.
Murals of about 20 other U.S. presidents are accompanied by an inspirational quote, written in English and Spanish. Trump’s quote reads: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”
“A lot of (the children) said they had heard a lot of anti-immigrant things Donald Trump had said,” said Diana Gomez, who conducted legal screenings inside the shelter for several months in 2017. “They were fleeing violence in their homes to seek opportunity and a better life in the U.S . ... They saw Donald Trump as a person who would be a threat to that hope and eventually deport them back to their country where they would face inevitable death.”
The nonprofit that runs the shelter came under scrutiny a week ago when U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, was barred from entering and local police were called. On Wednesday, in answer to a question about that, shelter officials said they didn’t know Merkley and they had no security on site to verify his identity.
A Southwest Key spokeswoman said the organization is proud of its track record and its child care.
And yet, state health regulators have within the last year documented numerous violations at Casa Padre.
Some of the 13 violations include employees belittling children, bathrooms with overflowing toilets, lapsed dental appointments and at least one resident who tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease, but didn’t receive treatment for more than two weeks.
Texas state health regulators found about 150 violations across the nonprofit’s 16 Texas shelters.
Sanchez said that on occasion a child has run away. Others who the shelter workers can’t handle have had to be transferred to other facilities.
Under a four-year contract with the Department of Health and Human Services the nonprofit is paid more than $400 million to care for unaccompanied minors. Southwest Key manages 27 shelters for immigrant children in Texas, Arizona and California.
With the number of immigrants arriving at the Southwest border plummeting to historic lows in May 2017, the nonprofit laid off hundreds of its employees. A year later, Casa Padre is almost at capacity. Officials couldn’t say how many of the laid-off employees had been rehired or how quickly they were able to staff up again.
Southwest Key shelters in Texas took in more than 11,110 minors during the 2017 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Since then, the organization said, its Texas shelters have served more than 11,900 unaccompanied minors.
The Trump administration is considering tent cities at military posts around Texas to house the increase of migrant children in detention. Reuters has reported 1,800 family separations between October 2016 and February.
Sanchez said Southwest Key would not participate in a tent city expansion, but might consider expanding operations.
The majority of unaccompanied minors who arrived during the last fiscal year, which ended in September, were older than 15, and nearly 70 percent were male, according to ORR data. Children spent an average of 49 days in Casa Padre; the goal is one month.