In the past two weeks, UnidosUS Affiliate Southwest Key has been in the national spotlight due to its role as a contractor for the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services (ORR/HHS). Southwest Key has long operated shelters for unaccompanied minor children, and more recently, for children who have been separated from their immigrant parents as a result of the Trump administration’s barbaric “zero-tolerance” policy.
We, like many others, vehemently oppose Trump’s cruel and inhumane policy. At the same time, we recognize the concerns raised about organizations that are involved in sheltering children who are separated from their families as part of this process.
That being said, it is important to remember what distinguishes the history and experience of an organization like Southwest Key from other current and potential organizations in this space.
For the last 30 years, Southwest Key has been widely recognized as a leader in providing culturally relevant, fully licensed child welfare services, establishing alternatives to incarceration for juvenile offenders, and serving as an advocate for the well-being of children and youth.
Its entry into the field of providing shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children occurred within the last decade. Until very recently, children in this situation were locked up in juvenile jails for months or years by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with little attention to their need for culturally appropriate social, educational, and health services, only to be eventually deported with limited access to legal help. Immigrant children advocates such as our colleagues at Kids in Need of Defense—the nation’s preeminent legal service provider for immigrant children—fought long and eventually successfully for these children to be cared for instead by ORR/HHS.
This important change in policy meant that it was child welfare organizations like Southwest Key and respected faith-based organizations, instead of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, who were taking care of these kids.
These organizations must be licensed and are subject to extensive review, evaluation, and oversight. Last year, the United Nations recognized Southwest Key for providing “excellent support to unaccompanied children,” in a report from its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
We strongly affirm and believe in the need and importance of external scrutiny, transparency, and accountability as it relates to appropriate conditions and attention at these shelters, to ensure that children are safe and properly cared for as they wait to be reunited with their families.
While we are not experts in shelter oversight, our staff has visited these facilities and nothing we have seen contradicts the judgment that unaccompanied children are far better off in these shelters than in alternatives such as facilities run by private prison companies or military contractors with no proven expertise in delivering culturally and linguistically appropriate care.
Make no mistake, that is the ugly choice here. No one wants to see children separated from their parents or in long-term shelter. But absent groups like Southwest Key, this space will be filled with the kinds of organizations that are now clamoring to be part of this system, such as those who run private prisons or military installations with no expertise in dealing with Spanish-speaking children, and that have deeply problematic track records. These children need protection and we must allow those who provide that care in a licensed, quality, and culturally appropriate way to serve them.
The media has also reported on Southwest Key CEO Juan Sanchez’s compensation. We do not know whether these reports are accurate. What we do know is that UnidosUS encourages all of our Affiliates to follow nonprofit best practices, which in this case would suggest that Southwest Key’s board of directors set its executives’ salaries based on an independent compensation study of peer organizations, as well as other appropriate considerations including revenue growth, length of tenure, and performance.
All of us who believe that it is immoral and un-American to separate children from their parents must continue the fight. We promise you that UnidosUS will not rest until we stop Trump’s deportation policies that separate families, not just at the border, but throughout our country.