The Duality of Southwest Key
An East Austin nonprofit in the immigration debate
An oversized mural, of children enjoying outdoor activities, adorns the side of Southwest Key's headquarters in East Austin. A yellow-canopied playground sits on the opposite end of a parking lot, nestled up against green trees. Bright mosaics commemorating Latino and African-American community leaders flank the outdoor walkway toward the lobby. The tranquil and inviting setting stands in stark contrast to the cacophony the organization has elicited in recent weeks, and represents an unsettling juxtaposition to the stark images of immigrant children being torn from their parents, to be sent off to Southwest Key's border facilities.
When Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley was denied entry earlier this June to a converted Walmart in Brownsville that now serves as a migrant youth shelter, it sparked a national uproar, and also shifted attention from the border to our backyard. The Brownsville center was one of 16 shelters owned by Southwest Key that traditionally house unaccompanied immigrant minors, those who cross the border on their own. The nonprofit entered into the migrant detention business in the late Nineties, and has since come to operate 27 shelters in Texas, California, and Arizona. (The organization is currently bidding to build another facility in Houston, where they've been met with local resistance.) But in May, they started taking in children who were separated from their families at the border as a result of Trump's new "zero-tolerance policy," which includes federal criminal prosecution. As part of that policy, children, including infants, were taken from their parents and placed in shelters or foster homes. Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted the move was meant as a deterrent for undocumented immigration. "If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border," he said. Southwest Key has held roughly 500 of the more than 2,000 children that have been separated since the policy.
While Trump's June 20 executive order has seemingly put a halt to those separations, and a California federal judge ruled on Tuesday that the federal government must reunite any family that had been separated within 30 days, it still keeps in place the harsh zero-tolerance policy. Now, children crossing with their parents will be placed in detention centers together – also a grim prospect. And the administration is also seeking to scrap protections that prevent keeping migrant children in detention for more than 20 days. Furthermore, it will still be a challenge to reunite the thousands of abandoned children with their parents. The involvement by Southwest Key has left a sour taste in the mouths of some community members who see the nonprofit as morally complicit in inhumane policies. But the nonprofit's leadership contends they are simply doing their job in the most humane way possible.
"Someone Has to Do It"
Southwest Key was founded in San Antonio in 1987, but moved to Austin in 1990, to an office near St. Edward's University. The organization relocated to Jain Lane between Highway 183 and Airport Boulevard. after being donated seven acres of land, and has since grown to provide a variety of local programs, including East Austin College Prep, from pre-K through high school; Boys and Girls Clubs activities; exercise classes; and a juvenile justice program, explicitly meant to keep kids out of detention centers and jails. Southwest Key now operates in seven states, with a focus on "provid[ing] quality education, safe shelter and alternatives to incarceration for thousands of youth each day, while helping families become economically self-sufficient." According to documents, the city of Austin has financially supported the programs with funding totaling roughly $1 million since 2006, which includes $250,000 to help boost a workforce resource center, computer lab, and life skills training. The city also gave the nonprofit a $624,000 loan in 2005 to construct their corporate office, school, and business incubator.
With deep roots in Austin, the group has drawn both ardent supporters and stark opposition – even before the shelter news. Some, like Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, feel Southwest Key, as a charter school operator, "undermined" public education by pulling students away from Eastside Memorial High School. Zarifis also describes the organization as "needlessly aggressive" in their 2011 attempt to lease the former Johnston High campus for 99 years at $1 per year ("Which (East) Side Are You On?," June 24, 2011). After that plan was rejected, members directly intervened at the state level by lobbying former Commissioner of Education Robert Scott to halt AISD's plan for the campus. Beyond all that, Zarifis believes the nonprofit's recent involvement with the child detention centers makes them hypocritical and morally wrong. "If your mission is to love and support kids, I don't understand how you can support the separation of children from families," he said. "I don't know how those two things square away."
Austin LULAC Council President Marcelo Tafoya serves as a member of East Austin College Prep's board. He defends the nonprofit, pointing to both their work in education and youth justice and the standards at their migrant shelters, while remaining personally opposed to Trump's family separation and zero-tolerance policies. (National LULAC is vigorously opposed to the two policies.) Tafoya says children at the shelters receive health care, education, recreation time, and other services. He lauds the Latino-run group for its intimate knowledge of the culture and language of many of the children they oversee. "They don't have anything to do with taking children away from their parents," said Tafoya. "They are providing shelter for these kids. Someone has to do it, so why not them? It's better there than prison."
Foundation Communities Executive Director Walter Moreau doesn't consider Southwest Key part of the tight-knit nonprofit community in Austin, but more like a "big multi-state government contractor." In the thick of the family separation policy, Moreau lambasted the group for taking in children who had been ripped from their mothers and fathers. "When you cooperate with a regime that removes children from parents and try to justify it with 'somehow we would be nicer to the kids than someone else,' that is still morally reprehensible. [Southwest Key] needs to refuse the contract. It's a deal with the devil and any decent organization would say no. Otherwise you are complicit in an inhumane policy."
Some locals who once supported Southwest Key's programs financially or otherwise have since been overcome with guilt. In a letter to Southwest Key dated June 21, software engineer Chip Rosenthal writes that he donated $100 to East Austin College Prep in memory of student Draylen Mason, the talented young man who was killed earlier this year in the Austin serial bombings. In light of the group "enabling" Trump's heartless policies, Rosenthal now feels regret over the contribution and requests the nonprofit redirect any funds received from government contracts to organizations that are working to support the aggrieved families and children. If they are unable to do so, he hopes his donation can be returned. "The benefit your organization provides to the community is outweighed manifold by its participation and profiteering in this historically reprehensible action," Rosenthal wrote. "It troubles me greatly that I have participated – in a minuscule way, through my contribution – in supporting what may be the most morally reprehensible domestic action of the 21st century."
Highlighting the uncomfortable tension between the nonprofit's participation in draconian immigration policies and its ostensible mission to help disadvantaged and minority youth, longtime ally Susana Almanza refrained from expressing any opinion about the nonprofit when reached by phone last week, instead deflecting blame onto the Trump administration. "The focus should be on Jeff Sessions and those creating this racist policy," said Almanza, who in 2013 was inducted into SWKey's Hall of Heroes and now can see a mosaic with her face every time she walks into the nonprofit's headquarters. "And that's all I have to comment about this," she said, before abruptly hanging up.
Big Contracts, Big Money
While Southwest Key's defenders applaud the organization's shelters for providing comprehensive and compassionate care to children, state records show a spotted history. Last April, a child did not receive the medicine he was prescribed, and another didn't get medication until days later, according to Health and Human Services Commission compliance reports. In October, a staff member showed up to work legally drunk. In 2015, staff did not take a child to the bathroom when he requested and so the child urinated on himself during class. Staff gave a child food that he was allergic to even though he was wearing a bracelet that identified his food allergies. At Casa Padre, where Sen. Merkley was denied a visit, an STD-positive resident wasn't given follow-up medical treatment until weeks later. Some staff have been guilty of yelling at and "belittling" children.
Even more troubling, reports reveal a child was found with a piece of paper that had a staff member's telephone number, and the staff member "appeared to have poor boundaries with the minor." A 2014 incident report says a "child's rights were violated when a staff member of the operation engaged in an inappropriate relationship with the child."
These are among nearly 250 violations found across Southwest Key's 16 Texas facilities over the past three years. And the heightened scrutiny has begat additional details of its neglect: According to Texas Monthly, a former Border Patrol agent who resigned from the agency following his arrest on child pornography charges was subsequently hired as a case manager at Casa Padre. The organization "eventually found out" about the man's pornography charges and suspended him "immediately."
In an interview with the Chronicle last week, Southwest Key CEO Dr. Juan Sanchez minimized the transgressions and deficiencies, saying that in the last three years the group's shelter programs have been evaluated for compliance on 73,292 standards, and he's "proud" less than 1% of those resulted in a violation. "We are not a perfect organization," he said. "Some things we either forget to do or didn't take care of. But we have addressed and corrected every one of those complaints, including terminating some staff."
In any case, despite the violations, the federal government pumps millions into Southwest Key to maintain the shelters. The Trump administration is paying the nonprofit $458 million, the highest amount among its shelter peers, to run its center this fiscal year, and last year they got $300 million. (The figure has increased each year since 2015.) The federal contracts aren't the only numbers that are rising for Southwest Key: Top-level leadership at the nonprofit have seen a boost in salaries. Sanchez made $443,000 in 2013; $659,000 in 2014 (including a $315,000 bonus); and $770,000 in 2015, according to IRS filings. His wife Jennifer, the vice president, made $261,000 that year, while CFO Melody Chung brought in $530,000. A 2017 report by city staff found that Sanchez was by far the highest-paid nonprofit leader in town, with Goodwill Industries of Central Texas CEO Gerald Davis behind by around $224,000, according to the Austin Monitor. Last year, Sanchez made $1.47 million, making him one of the highest-paid charity CEOs in the country.
Sanchez attributes the lucrative pay to humble beginnings. "When we started 30 years ago, we made very little money – no 401(k), no health insurance. Over time, our board has found a way to compensate us for when they couldn't afford to pay much.
"The idea that working for a nonprofit means you should make the least amount of money is a puritanical belief that has to change. You can be small and not get far, or be big and impact and change lives in the community."
No Guarantee of Reuniting
Luisa, a 23-year-old asylum-seeking mother from Guatemala, spent five weeks separated from her son, Mateo, after Trump's "no-tolerance" policy went into effect. The two were housed at separate facilities in Central Texas, unaware of each other's whereabouts. However, steadfast efforts by Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett, RAICES, and local attorneys helped reunite the two, making Luisa and Mateo one of the first detained and separated mothers and sons to meet again. While Doggett calls it a "joyful story amid the misery," he notes there are thousands like them whose fate is still in limbo.
Since the Trump administration's executive order was issued, a majority of the more than 2,000 children pulled away from their families since May – including infants and toddlers – are still in either foster homes or shelters. In helping 300 parents track down their children, the Texas Civil Rights Project has only found two so far. The reunification process is difficult for several reasons, including language barriers and confusion over whom to contact, and may lead to permanent separation. Advocates and attorneys hope the recent California federal court ruling speeds up the process.
Doggett says he recently reached out to Sanchez to find out more about Southwest Key shelters. While he doesn't harshly fault the nonprofit for taking in the influx of separated children, he does believe moving forward that they shouldn't partake in similar policies. "It's bothersome that anyone is playing a role with the separation of families," he says. "I don't know how they could have avoided the quick change in policy in this circumstance but in the future they can take a stand to never participate in this."
Sanchez maintains that his nonprofit is unfairly taking heat for a policy they didn't craft. He promises that the shelters are working to reunite children with their parents and stresses only 10% of its total migrant youth population were children pulled from their families. "If we didn't take these kids in, then who would?" he asks. "We're the good guys in this and we're taking a lot of grief and criticism. But in the end we're proud to be able to take care of these children. That's our job."
During other interviews, Southwest Key remained notably neutral to the practice of the family separation, not wishing to make any direct comment either way. But that changed when Trump signed his executive order on the policy last Wednesday. At that point, the nonprofit issued a release stating their opposition. Sanchez says certain "limitations" kept the group from speaking out against the federal order. Pressed to elaborate, Sanchez pointed to federal contracts.
"You're expected to support the administration in this issue," he told me. "And it's hard to do. They fund you and they expect you to support the policies of the administration."