Point Austin: Suffer the Little Children
Is Southwest Key providing child care at the border, or collaboration?
It turns out there is a prominent local connection to the latest wrinkle in the Trump administration's immigration policy, the "zero tolerance" announced in April that has meant a spike in border arrests as well as family separations – seizing minor children and confining them away from their parents, theoretically as a "deterrent" against potential future immigrants. After U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley visited a Brownsville border detention center on Sunday, he followed that with an attempt to visit the Casa Padre shelter operated by Austin-headquartered nonprofit Southwest Key, under a contract with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Merkley was turned away at the shelter – most foolishly, the managers called the cops – and his video of the event (available on his Facebook page) has gone viral. It's produced some confusion – his description of the border detention center (where children are held in "kennel-like" fenced areas for a few days) has been confounded with the Southwest Key shelter, where the children's circumstances are reportedly safe and healthy (as distinct from the question why they are there in the first place).
Needless to say, although this is a federal responsibility, Southwest Key has taken a major PR hit for its association with the new Trump policy. The nonprofit (specifically its Southwest Key Programs) issued a boilerplate statement of "regret" for the episode: "The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) prohibits any facility from allowing visits that have not been approved by them," said the press release, "even if it is a U.S. Senator." Merkley claimed he tried to go through official channels, but the agency claimed it had too short notice to provide federal escorts.
Back in D.C., the supervising Administration for Children and Families (under Health and Human Services) was less polite: "No one who arrives unannounced at one of our shelters demanding access to the children in our care will be permitted, even those claiming to be U.S. Senators. ... We would welcome [Merkley] to engage in that [official] process so that he may visit the facility to make headway on this important issue, rather than just headlines."
To that sneer Merkley might well respond, "No headlines, no headway." His media stunt was an obvious attempt to call attention to an administration policy to separate families explicitly as a cruel deterrent to people fleeing destitution, or worse. (We certainly can't expect any help from Texas incumbents John Cornyn or Ted Cruz.) While President Trump inevitably lied about the new policy and blamed it on Democrats, Attorney General Jeff Sessions oxymoronically defended it, saying: "If people don't want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them." The ACF did admit the new policy has generated a major human backlog: As of this week, NBC and The Washington Post reported, the agency "is caring for more than 11,000 unaccompanied children at the moment, and it is averaging about 45 days to place children" – while the border detention centers are simultaneously holding hundreds more beyond the legal limit of 72 hours.
I spoke to longtime Texas reporter Debbie Nathan about the situation, and though she hasn't been able to visit the Brownsville shelter directly, she's spoken to enough staff and medical personnel to believe the children are generally well cared for while in residence. "That's not the real issue," she said. "The issue is that children are essentially being placed in 'orphanages' or with foster families, when they should be with their parents." The administration insists those parents have broken U.S. law – in fact most are quite legally claiming political asylum – and instead are being treated as criminals.
I tried to ask Southwest Key officials whether they concur with the "zero tolerance" policy, or feel any obligation to push back against these aggressive family separations. All questions were reflexively referred to "our funder, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement." Those funds are indeed nothing to sniff at: Newsweek reports that thus far in FY 2018 alone, ORR has paid the nonprofit $310,824,288, most recently $99.7 million on May 10 – "just days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration's new policy of separating parents and children at the border." (The report also noted that in 2015, SWKey President and CEO Juan Sanchez was paid $770,860 – make of that what you will.)
Sen. Merkley wonders if Southwest Key is "having second thoughts about being partners in a process of ripping children away from their families under this new policy." I'm wondering that as well, especially since each child newly deposited at Casa Padre represents a living piece of those hundreds of millions in contracts. Maybe CEO Sanchez, or somebody at Southwest Key, will start wondering whether collaborating with Trump administration cruelty is worth the children's weight in gold. Or perhaps, that's what Jesus really meant when he told his disciples (Matthew 19:14), "Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."