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'Prison-like' migrant youth shelter is understaffed, unequipped for Trump's 'zero tolerance' policy, insider says

A rare inside look inside the Southwest Key shelters where migrant children are sent after they're separated from their parents at the border under Trump's new "zero tolerance" policy.

Colleagues at a government-contracted shelter in Arizona had a specific request for Antar Davidson when three Brazilian migrant children arrived: “Tell them they can’t hug.”

Davidson, 32, is of Brazilian descent and speaks Portuguese. He said the siblings — ages 16, 10 and 6 — were distraught after being separated from their parents at the border. The children were “huddled together, tears streaming down their faces,” he said.

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Officials had told them their parents were “lost,” which they interpreted to mean dead. Davidson said he told the children he didn’t know where their parents were, but that they had to be strong.

“The 16-year-old, he looks at me and says, ‘How?’” Davidson said. As he watched the youth cry, he thought, “This is not healthy.”

Davidson quit this week after being a youth care worker at the Tucson shelter, Estrella del Norte, for just a few months. He decided to speak out about his experiences there in hopes of improving a system often shielded from public scrutiny. His comments in a telephone interview offer a rare look into the operation of a migrant shelter.

Davidson said he became disillusioned after the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy began sending the shelter not only children who had crossed the border unaccompanied by adults, but also those separated from their parents.

The caseload is straining a facility he described as understaffed and unequipped to deal with children experiencing trauma, such as the three Brazilians. During his time at the shelter, children were running away, screaming, throwing furniture and attempting suicide, Davidson said. Several were being monitored this week because they were at risk of running away, self-harm and suicide, records show.

A spokeswoman for Southwest Key, the Austin-based nonprofit operating the shelter, disputed those allegations Wednesday and said the shelter meets state licensing requirements, including for staffing ratios and training.

“Our staff have great expertise in dealing with this population,” said spokeswoman Cindy Casares. “We have very high professional development standards.”

Casares said staffing ratios were particularly important. “We cannot operate if we do not have the legally mandated number of staff required,” she said.

In recent months, she said, the company paid staff to work overtime and mounted “a very aggressive hiring campaign.”

According to a statement she released Wednesday, “For the last 20 years we hire staff that have a child care or social work background to be prepared to support the developmental and emotional needs of all children who arrive to our facility.”

According to Kenneth Wolfe, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, the government contracts with 100 shelters in 17 states. The facilities now house 11,313 children.

Twenty-seven of those shelters in Arizona, California and Texas are run by Southwest Key. It is among the largest child migrant shelter providers nationwide, having served 24,877 children last year. Staff members must be bilingual and receive 80 hours of training before they can work with children.

The shelters are state-licensed, including the nearly 300-bed Tucson facility, a former apartment complex. This week there were 287 youth at the shelter, 70 of them age 13 or younger.

By law, the U.S. Border Patrol must turn unaccompanied children over to the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, known as ORR, within 72 hours. The children are then supposed to be placed with relatives or other sponsors.

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Some immigrant advocates say that under the Trump administration, ORR has become an arm of immigration enforcement. This month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) questioned conditions in the shelters after he was turned away while trying to visit the Casa Padre facility in Brownsville, Texas, also run by Southwest Key.

The company released a statement at the time saying “with ORR approval, Southwest Key shelters have welcomed elected and other public officials at our facilities in the past, and will continue to do so, because we are proud of the caring environment we provide these children.” The statement noted that “federal employees from ORR visit our shelters multiple times a week.”

The Health and Human Services Department said that “no one who arrives unannounced at one of our shelters demanding access to the children in our care will be permitted, even those claiming to be U.S. Senators.”

The department conducted a media shelter tour in Brownsville on Wednesday and will hold one Friday in El Cajon, Calif. Visitors will not be allowed to talk to people inside or photograph them. Southwest Key’s chief executive emailed staff Tuesday notifying them of the tours and offering reassurances.

“We are very excited about this opportunity to show the world the incredible work our employees are doing to care for the children we serve,” Juan Sanchez wrote, noting Southwest Key had hired 700 new employees who will complete training soon. “I know you’ve been working overtime due to the surge of kids in our shelters. Please hold on just a little while longer. Relief is coming soon.”

Antar Davidson was a youth care worker at a Southwest Key shelter, pictured at right, in Tucson, Ariz.
Antar Davidson was a youth care worker at a Southwest Key shelter, pictured at right, in Tucson, Ariz. (Rebecca Sasnett / For The Times)

Davidson, who completed work for a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Arizona last year, said he was full of hope when he arrived at the Tucson shelter in February.

Children received “know your rights” presentations from a local advocacy group, then saw clinicians and case workers weekly. They were taken to see doctors and dentists as needed.

Davidson taught vocational and English classes, and started a class in the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. Many of the Guatemalan youth he initially met were indigenous, from rural areas.

Under the zero-tolerance policy, cases that had been handled administratively in immigration court were now prosecuted as misdemeanors or felonies in federal court. Migrants were charged with crossing the border illegally and separated from their children, who were placed in shelters.

Davidson saw more and more confused and upset children, most from Latin America. There also were more of what staff call “tender age” children, those under 13. Some were as young as 4, he said.

“What was once a transient facility with a staff that was strained and struggling is now becoming a more permanent facility,” and more “prison-like,” Davidson said.

On May 27, three Honduran and one Mexican youth scaled the fence surrounding the shelter and ran away. Only one of the Hondurans was caught, he said. Runaways had been a problem at the shelter for years, and officials had already added security doors and cameras. Several youth were being monitored as “run risks,” records show.

Southwest Key confirmed the incident in its statement, and said they reported the three runaways to law enforcement.

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“We are not allowed, by law, to restrain anyone who tries to climb the fence to leave. We are able to talk with them and attempt to get them to stay but we cannot restrain them,” the statement said.

When the Brazilian siblings arrived May 29, they were taken to a classroom, where Davidson said he was told to have them stay because there wasn’t enough staff to supervise the sleeping quarters.

Southwest Key disputed his account, saying in its statement: “Professional translation was already arranged in this situation. We have case managers who speak Portuguese and we use translation services. No minors slept in a classroom. That is inaccurate and is not allowed by law.”

But when five more Brazilian youth, ages 5 to 17, arrived May 30, it was clear that “the kids had no idea what was going on,” Davidson said.

“They had no idea where their parents were. The case managers said it’s going to be a week until we even find their parents and another week until we talk to them. I just saw how they were bungling these cases,” he said. “At that point zero tolerance was in full swing and you could see the desperation: kids running down the hall, screaming for their moms.”

Davidson emailed a written complaint to a regional supervisor that day.

“I would rather see the facility handle this humanitarian situation properly rather than turn my back on the plight of these minors,” he wrote. “With the new laws and influx of increasingly diverse and more troubled [youth], I worry the staff and management here in Tucson are going to struggle even more.”

Davidson said he also contacted the supervisor by phone, and she promised to take action, but conditions only worsened.

“The majority of children are able to contact their families in home country, as well as family and/or potential sponsor in the United States, within 24 hours of arrival,” said Southwest Key’s statement on Wednesday. “Any delay is due to the fact that the child needs assistance obtaining the phone number of the family members to be called.”

But “the staff were really unable to control these kids,” Davidson said.

Staff suspected some of their charges were adults posing as children, he said — they were listed in records as “possible adults.” They had discovered men as old as 26 posing as adolescents, he said. But the way staff handle those suspicions can also cause problems, he said.

Recently, staff questioned a Guatemalan migrant who said he was 13 and had come to the U.S. to join his father. Davidson said the boy was telling the truth, but a DNA test showed that the man he thought was his father wasn’t. After officials told the man the boy’s true paternity, the man “didn’t want anything to do with him,” Davidson said.

After the boy learned the truth, he started scratching himself and attempted suicide, Davidson said. Officials contacted the boy’s biological father, he said, but “he didn’t want him either.”

The boy has been at the shelter for several months under close observation.

Southwest Key said that legally, it could not discuss specific cases, but added that “staff are trained to work with youth separated from their parents. We provide compassionate care, it is core to what we do.”

During the Wednesday tour in Brownsville, officials said they have tried to weed out adults posing as children using DNA tests and dental records.

Last Thursday, the Southwest Key CEO met with staff at the Tucson shelter, including Davidson. He said the company planned to decrease the staffing ratio to one to three employees per child.

Sanchez urged staff to help the migrant children through an “employee give-back program” — a single $240 donation or $10 from each paycheck, Davidson said.

Southwest Key said the donations were for a scholarship program for shelter youth who “want to further education or have extreme health or life problems,” and that Sanchez never vowed to decrease staffing ratios.

“We are hiring additional staff to meet an increase in all our facilities due to the number of children we are being asked to care for by ORR,” the statement said.

Davidson left thinking, “They’re not going to get enough workers.”

He got a new job, and submitted his resignation Tuesday. Davidson said he does not want to see shelters shut down, but feels like a “conscientious objector.”

“I can no longer in good conscience work with Southwest Key programs,” he wrote. “I am feeling uneasy about the morality of some of the practices.”

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