Southwest Key Programs regrets denying Sen. Merkley entry - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Migrant facility releases comment Southwest Key Programs regrets denying Sen. Merkley entry

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Posted: Tuesday, June 5, 2018 10:08 pm

Southwest Key Programs has issued a statement saying the organization regrets turning away a senator from Oregon who attempted to tour the facility in Brownsville on Sunday.

A Facebook Live video showed staff at the Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre facility for minor undocumented immigrant children in the old Walmart on Padre Island Highway calling the police on U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, who said he requested a tour of the facility late last week.

“At Southwest Key Programs, we share Senator Merkley’s concern for children, and we appreciate that he took time to travel to the border. For more than 20 years, Southwest Key has acted as a humanitarian first responder, caring for immigrant children arriving in this country without a parent or guardian. We provide round-the-clock services including: food, shelter, medical and mental health care, clothing, educational support, supervision, and reunification support,” Southwest Key Programs said in the statement.

Merkley is a vocal critic of President Donald Trump’s administration’s policy of separating children from their parents when they immigrate illegally into the country.

In the statement, Southwest Key Programs also takes issue with being described as a detention facility.

“On a final note, it is important to understand that Casa Padre is not a detention facility. It is an unaccompanied minor shelter with many layers of oversight: it is licensed for childc are by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. All of our shelters are regulated by state child care licensing authorities, as well as local and county authorities,” Southwest Key Programs said in the statement.

It also said that federal employees from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which subcontracts with Southwest Key Programs, visits its facilities multiple times each week.

OVERSIGHT

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services has conducted 22 inspections at the Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre facility since March 24, 2017, a month after the nonprofit turned the old Walmart on Padre Island Highway into the facility. The latest state inspection was last Friday, according to state records.

State inspectors identified 13 deficiencies at the Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre facility over that time period, which include meat not being thawed properly; child records not being complete or readily available; and a recommended dental appointment not being scheduled.

The inspectors also recorded one instance where a doctor on Sept. 15, 2017, diagnosed a child with an STD and appropriate medical treatment was not provided to that child until Oct. 3, 2017, after a medical facilitator failed to show up to a scheduled appointment.

In another instance, state inspectors observed a staff member making a belittling remark to a child in front other children violating that child’s right to be protected from belittlement or ridicule. That was on Oct. 11, 2017, according to state records.

The most recent serious infraction occurred on Jan. 2 when state inspectors observed two bathrooms with an overflow of toilet paper spilling onto the floor; food and milk located on a child’s bed; and a trashcan that was overflowing in a bedroom.

Southwest Key Programs operates 27 shelters in Arizona, California and Texas. Department of Health and Human Services records indicate 16 of those locations are in Texas with seven being located in Cameron County.

The Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre facility in Brownsville laid off nearly 1,000 employees May of 2017, sending letters to employees that “due to the low number of unaccompanied children crossing our national border, the federal government has instructed all of its shelter contractors, including Southwest Key, that they must decrease the bed capacity in response to the current situation.”

Then, in December, the Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre began rehiring employees. It’s not clear if Trump’s “zero tolerance” and separation policy has contributed to the shelter re-opening.

In February, another ORR subcontractor in Cameron County, International Educational Services, laid off all of its employees and closed its locations in South Texas after ORR decided not to renew its grant funding.

The ORR has refused to explain why it did not renew grant funding and IES did not respond to repeated requests asking why, but state records showed numerous violations at those facilities, including inappropriate sexual behavior.

An email sent to an ORR spokesperson inquiring whether IES was still closed was not returned by press time.

CONTINUED MOMENTUM

On Tuesday, during a telephone press conference with reporters from across the country, Merkley recounted his visit to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center in McAllen; his run-in with police at Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre facility in Brownsville; talked about his belief that the policy is inhumane and traumatic; and proposed legislation that would allow any member of congress to visit any facility that holds undocumented immigrant minors with just 24-hour notice.

“A lot of people were crowded in. The only thing they had was their clothing and they had these space blankets,” Merkley said of the McAllen processing center. “There was no padding on the floor. Some were laying down, some standing. I believe there may have been some benches.”

Merkley spoke of how the processing center has a series of computers and many people are not interviewed in person, but rather by staffers over a computer.

“They don’t have the staffing locally to do all the processing interviews,” Merkley said.

Then those people are sent to a vast warehouse with mattresses on the floor where people “are being sorted by boys, girls, men and women” into big fenced enclosures before the children are transferred to facilities like Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre location on Padre Island Highway.

He said officials assured him the children are being treated well.

“It’s not treating children well to rip them away from their families,” Merkley said. “It’s inflicting trauma.”

Jeff Fleischer, CEO of Youth Advocate Programs, a community-based organization, which was founded in Pennsylvania, that has programs in 24 states, said in an unpublished editorial shared with The Brownsville Herald that separating children from parents is inhumane for families already under unimaginable stress.

For three decades, Fleischer said he has worked with families facing extreme adversity in Latin America.

“During these same decades, working alongside and in solidarity with community-based organizations in Guatemala, I witnessed firsthand the appalling violence and hardship families coming to the U.S. are escaping,” Fleischer wrote. “Parents coming to our borders today risk everything, including their lives and those of their children, to give their families what everyone wants-peace, safety and the opportunity for their children to grow.”

After all that, separating them from their families is unjust, Fleischer said, echoing a sentiment made by Merkley and other experts during Tuesday’s telephone press conference.

“To say this is an inhumane way to treat children and parents already under unimaginable distress is an understatement,” Fleischer wrote.

As for Merkley, he said he plans to propose legislation that would allow any member of congress to visit a facility like Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre facility with 24-hour notice, instead of having to wait weeks to tour a facility.

“We need to be able to see how they are working on a day-to-day basis and we need to understand the entire population that is there,” Merkley said, explaining that he believes the facility on Padre Island Highway houses up to 1,000 unaccompanied minors, children of parents who are seeking asylum and children whose parent’s have crossed the border illegally.

The Trump Administration has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy where all people accused of crossing illegally are charged in federal court and their children are separated from them.

“I’m also pressing for a simple one-sentence law that says it is the policy of the United States not to separate children from their parents,” Merkley said.

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