Kandace Vallejo thought she knew Southwest Key Programs: a big nonprofit based in Austin, Texas. Runs a charter school. Works with youth.
And holds thousands of migrant children in facilities paid for by the U.S. government.
That was news.
"I was a little bit shocked," Vallejo says of when she found out a few weeks ago. As founding executive director of another Austin nonprofit, Youth Rise Texas, she works with children whose families have been separated by incarceration or deportation — including some kids who go to a Southwest Key charter school. "I feel like I should have known sooner."
Southwest Key has been running shelters for unaccompanied migrant children for two decades, without drawing much attention. In some instances, the shelters were described admiringly.
Today, Southwest Key has 26 shelters in Texas, Arizona and California, housing more than 5,100 immigrant minors. That's about half of the total population in the custody of Health and Human Services. Its federal contracts now tally more than $400 million annually.
And when the Trump administration began separating children from their families earlier this year, some of those kids went to Southwest Key facilities. (As of this week, children separated from their families constituted about 10 percent of the youth housed by the organization.) When Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., tried to visit one of those facilities in Brownsville, Texas, earlier this month, he was turned away.
Video of the incident went viral — and suddenly, the group's shelters moved from the shadows to the spotlight.
And much to its leaders' frustration, Southwest Key became the face of a Trump administration policy.
"Southwest Key is not responsible for making immigration policy," Alexia Rodriguez, Southwest Key's legal counsel and vice president for immigrant children's services, tells NPR. "We don't have any influence in that department. ... What we do is what we've always done, for 20 years. We take great care of kids."
But the past few weeks have stirred difficult questions in the nonprofit world and the immigrant advocacy community, particularly in Austin.
Is Southwest Key acting compassionately, or is it complicit in a controversial policy? Is it protecting kids or profiting off them?
"This is a very polarizing issue," Vallejo tells NPR. "There are not any easy answers. It's an incredibly complex situation."
Child care centers or "prisons"?
Southwest Key is the biggest nonprofit running these shelters, but it's not the only one. Shelters run by other organizations have been accused of serious physical abuse, sexual abuse and the use of psychotropic drugs without consent. By most accounts, Southwest Key shelters are generally safe, except for some health and safety violations.
However, some former employees have stepped forward to say that the conditions inside the shelters are psychologically damaging, with inadequately trained staff who are unable to comfort children or are prohibited from hugging them. (Southwest Key executives say staff are trained to work with traumatized children and that appropriate touching is allowed.)
Diana Gómez visited child shelters across the Rio Grande Valley last year as part of her job with a law firm to conduct interviews with new arrivals. She tells NPR that all the shelters she saw — not just Southwest Key facilities — seemed ill-equipped to handle the level of trauma that unaccompanied minors experienced.
For that matter, she said, she hadn't been adequately trained for the degree of trauma she would encounter. "I heard the worst stories I've ever heard in my entire life — coming from children," she told NPR, pausing to collect herself.
Employees at these shelters would be distracted or distant and would sometimes bring her the wrong children, Gómez said. They would talk in front of the kids about how large numbers of asylum-seeking children meant job security.
To other critics and skeptics, the quality of the care is hardly the only question.
"A prison is a prison is a prison, whether we want to call them nice euphemisms," Vallejo says. "If people aren't allowed to leave, then it's imprisonment, and so we need to be clear about that."
"We are a licensed child care facility," Southwest Key founder and CEO Juan Sanchez tells NPR. "We do not incarcerate kids." He is quick to correct interviewers who refer to shelter facilities as "detention centers."
"They're not with a family member, right?" Rodriguez tells NPR. "So they can't just leave and go outside. And they have to be cared for. ... We have to, for their own safety and protection, make sure that we are constantly supervising them."
"As complicit as a coyote"
Then there's the money.
The organization has grown into one of the largest nonprofits in its area. CNN reports that Sanchez's $1.5 million annual salary makes him one of the highest-paid nonprofit CEOs in the country.
Sanchez defends his salary and the other executive salaries as reasonable given the scale of the organization.
He also questions whether his salary, specifically, is being questioned because he is Hispanic. "Does the fact that my name is Sanchez make a difference?" he said. "If my name was Smith, or my last name was Ryan, would this question still be asked?"
Gómez is skeptical of the size of the federal contracts for all the child shelter companies.
"I think they saw a way to make money — so much of it," Gómez says. "I think they're being incredibly complicit in taking advantage of it."
She compared shelter companies such as Southwest Key to the "coyotes," or people smugglers who charge immigrants to bring them across the border illegally. She imagined a coyote justifying his work with similar explanations — "I'm going to charge money but there's a need for it"; "I'm keeping this person safe on their journey."
"Honestly, that's how I feel," she said. "[They're] as complicit as a coyote."
Rodriguez, Southwest Key's legal counsel and head of the child immigrant shelter program, rejects that comparison as ludicrous. She also pushes back against people who object to the size of the contracts the organization is receiving.
"I wish people were saying, 'Thank you — thank you for growing the way that you have, because if you didn't, those kids would stay in those ICE detention facilities for days, weeks, months at a time,' " she said. (It should be noted that ICE is legally barred from keeping children in jaillike detention facilities for more than three days.)
This, in a nutshell, is Southwest Key's position: Someone has to care for these children while they're in government custody, and Southwest Key will do it more compassionately and effectively than immigration officials or even other nonprofits.
"They've been doing it well"
Compared with other shelter companies, Sanchez says, "we're probably one of the few, if not the only one, that is headed by a group of Latinos. ... And as a result of that, on a cultural basis and on a language basis, we are able to relate to these kids in a very special, particular way that is what they need."
Rogelio Nuñez, the executive director of Casa de Proyecto Libertad, a nonprofit that has worked on behalf of immigrants in South Texas for decades, is not convinced by that argument.
"I would say while I myself am Chicano — Mexican-American — that doesn't equate to humane treatment, that doesn't equate to being humanitarian," he tells NPR. "I could tell you there are many Chicanos that I know who are anti-immigrant and anti-black and anti-women. Being Latino is not a guarantee that you're going to treat the world better."
Nuñez says Southwest Key is running detention centers, even if it refuses to use that term, and he criticized the organization for keeping most of its facilities out of the public eye, without giving journalists access.
Teo Tijerina, a former employee of Southwest Key, defends his old employer. As its former director of social enterprises, he didn't work directly with the shelters, but he said everything he saw within the organization showed a commitment to helping children.
"I think it's unfortunate that the good work that I believe they do is getting tarnished by this policy," Tijerina told NPR. "Southwest Key has been running shelters for decades. They've been doing it well."
He isn't bothered by the idea that the organization is complicit in federal immigration policies, including family separation.
"I think I tend to be more of a pragmatist," he said. "I'm certain that the overwhelming number of people I worked with are not happy about this policy. But once the government has made this decision to rip these [families] apart, my personal feeling is that there are no better hands to be in than Southwest Key's hands."
"I understand the public's frustration," Tijerina said. "But I'm a lot more disappointed by having for-profit companies run prisons. ... This is a nonprofit."
For her part, Vallejo of Youth Rise Texas says she still has questions about how Southwest Key is operating — nonprofit or not. She is "declining, at this moment, to work alongside and in cooperation with Southwest Key" until there is more transparency about its shelters.
But, she says, the ultimate focus needs to be on the policies that criminalize migration in the first place.
"Truly, the solution to the problem is at a federal level," Vallejo says.
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