Point Austin: Ground Zero for Zero Tolerance

Southwest Key becomes the local symbol of brutal U.S. policy

Point Austin: Ground Zero for Zero Tolerance

Austin nonprofit Southwest Key Programs is enduring a public relations pounding for its involvement in the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy targeting undocumented immigrants, and the ongoing scandal of "separated families." When the stories broke initially, of families being separated at the border by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – and of what became of thousands of children transferred to shelters managed by various nonprofits, Southwest Key being the largest – the organization was referring all media questions to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, their federal funders (under U.S. Health and Human Services) who keep a tight rein on all their contractors ("Point Austin: Suffer the Little Children," June 8).

More recently, after the feds officially ended the family separations – but not the "zero tolerance" for border-crossings – Southwest Key administrators, beginning with CEO Juan Sanchez, have tried to defend themselves. In an op-ed, Sanchez wrote that all the children are cared for in a "safe, child-friendly and culturally appropriate way ... [by] staff who give compassionate care in a nurturing environment. ... This has been the case for the past 20 years that Southwest Key has operated unaccompanied minor shelters."

Nevertheless, once the shelters were required to accept not just "unaccompanied minors" but also the children kidnapped by ICE as an explicit deterrent against future refugees, it was inevitable that the shelter operators would find themselves targeted by public criticism. Southwest Key's national headquarters in Austin has seen demonstrations, and another occurred at Sanchez's Northwest Austin home. Protesters are demanding that Southwest Key end its federal contracts – an unlikely prospect, structurally or financially – and that the city of Austin and Travis County end any programs or funding connected to Southwest Key.

Manufacturing Refugees

Since it's a visible target, it's understandable that local activists would single out Southwest Key for criticism of the federal immigration crackdown. But according to Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller, the only local contract held by Southwest Key is for an annual arts program, at $15,000/year (although they may hold other contracts through their for-profit affiliates). Next to the half-million or so the organization will receive from U.S. Health and Human Services in 2018 alone, the local funding is a trifle. More immediately alarming is the specific issue of the separated children, but Eller insisted last week that all such children who had been in the care of Southwest Key have been accounted for, and that the actual reunifications specifically are handled either by ORR or ICE. "Every child that was approved for reunification, who [was] under our care," Eller told me, "we were able to bring to the designated place as determined by ICE."

Despite the relentless headlines, only about 10% of the children in Southwest Key shelters were among the "separated" group, and it's since become clear that the federal officials who instituted the separations policy had no plan for what to do with the children after separation, for they did not even attempt to track their scattered whereabouts. (Indeed, a congressional hearing this week revealed that officials were warned by HHS they would be traumatizing children, but were unmoved – the priority was deterrence of future refugees.)

That's why more than 700 (of the originally estimated 2,700) children have indeed not been reunited – their parents were either precipitously deported, have waived reunification (under duress), or have been designated "red flag" (suspicious) cases that shouldn't be reunited. Despite Southwest Key's assurances, it is simply impossible to know whether all the eligible kidnapped children have indeed been returned to their families.

Meanwhile, thousands more unaccompanied minor children remain in various stages of transition, with the whole process further encumbered by the new "no-tolerance" policy. It's a gigantic and disgraceful mess, greatly aggravated by the Trump administration. But less egregious procedures have been in place for a decade or more, as a dysfunctional Congress has repeatedly refused to address immigration, and years of Central American chaos (exacerbated both by U.S. drug wars and literal wars) have generated thousands more refugees.

What Goes Around

The grand and bitter result is that we've all been made complicit – not only in U.S. immigration policies that have now reached a historical nadir of kidnapped children, but in reckless U.S. foreign policies that have helped generate millions of people fleeing violence and starvation. That's true not only in Central America, but across the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. It's easy to point our fingers at Southwest Key – or whoever is assigned to care for these thousands of refugee children – and absolve ourselves of enabling those outrages to continue. For decades, the U.S. has attempted to impose military solutions on political quandaries, with inevitably dismal results – while we then try to build bureaucratic or real walls between ourselves and the chaos we've engendered. As Malcolm X once put it in another context, the chickens always come home to roost.

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Southwest Key, Juan Sanchez

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