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2 workers at child immigrant centers accused of sex abuse

NEW YORK — Two youth care workers at Arizona shelters for migrant children have been charged with sexually assaulting immigrant teenagers, according to court records.

They are the latest claims of abuse at government-contracted shelters that have a key role in the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration crackdown.

On Tuesday, the police in Phoenix arrested Fernando Magaz Negrete, 32, on charges of sexual abuse and child molestation after he was seen kissing and fondling a 14-year-old girl in June, the authorities said.

That arrest came a day after federal prosecutors detailed their case against another youth worker, Levian D. Pacheco, 25, who is HIV-positive and is accused of groping six teenage boys and performing oral sex on two others at a detention center from late August 2016 through July 2017.

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The men worked at separate facilities, both of which are operated by Southwest Key Programs, a Texas nonprofit that has received at least $955 million in federal contracts since 2015 to provide shelters and other services to immigrant children in federal custody.

The contractor is one of the largest operators in the highly secretive, billion-dollar business of housing, transporting, and watching over migrant children in federal custody on the southern border.

President Trump’s policies on immigration, including the administration’s now-defunct family separation policy, have provided a financial boon to contractors like Southwest Key Programs.

The contractors have also come under increased scrutiny for their treatment of immigrants, prompting a top government official on Tuesday to defend the detention centers for families as “more like a summer camp.”

But in the case against Pacheco, a federal prosecutor in Arizona offered a very different description for the juvenile migrant center where he worked: “a prison setting.”

Workers checked on the children in their rooms at the facility, Southwest Key’s Casa Kokopelli in Mesa, Ariz., about every 15 minutes, the prosecutor told a federal judge in January.

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“During those check-ins and at other times, this defendant would go in, it’s alleged, and touch these children,” said Robert I. Brooks, an assistant U.S. attorney, in a hearing, according to court documents. The case against Pacheco, who has pleaded not guilty, was reported this week by ProPublica.

Allegations against Pacheco were first reported to Mesa Police Department officers on July 24 last year, according to federal court records. Three boys, all 17, told the police similar stories about their interactions with him.

A boy from Guatemala said that Pacheco came into his bathroom early one morning that month and groped him as he washed his hands. Another boy said that Pacheco fondled him while he was in bed at night. A third boy said Pacheco grabbed his crotch while he was cleaning his room.

Pacheco was indicted in August 2017 and the authorities arrested him later that month in Miami after he had returned on a flight from Cuba, where he was born. Pacheco was granted lawful permanent resident status in the United States after fleeing Cuba, federal authorities said.

Over the past year, the case was handed over to federal investigators in the Department of Health and Human Services, and additional allegations were uncovered. Pacheco is now accused of sexually assaulting eight boys, ages 15 to 17, according to court documents.

Six boys said they were groped over their clothing, and two others said Pacheco had performed oral sex on them. One of the boys said Pacheco also tried to engage in anal sex with him.

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Federal authorities told the boys that Pacheco was HIV-positive, and “a couple of the victims” decided to be tested for HIV, according to court documents.

In the January hearing, Brooks told the judge, Steven P. Logan of the US District Court for the District of Arizona, that Pacheco tried to persuade one of the boys to run away with him.

“All these children are particularly vulnerable. They are children. They are minors,” Brooks said. “They are in the United States without status. They don’t know the culture. They don’t know the custom, and they don’t know their future.”

In a separate development Friday, a federal judge said the Trump administration is solely responsible for reuniting hundreds of children who remain separated from the parents after being split at the US-Mexico border, the Associated Press reported.

The statement by Judge Dana Sabraw in US District Court in San Diego punctured a government plan that put the onus on the American Civil Liberties Union.

‘‘The reality is that for every parent that is not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration,’’ Sabraw said.

His remarks in a conference call came a day after the administration and the American Civil Liberties Union submitted widely divergent plans on how to reunify more than 500 still-separated children, including 410 with parents outside the United States.

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The government proposed Thursday that the ACLU, which represents parents, use its ‘‘considerable resources’’ to find parents in their home countries, predominantly Guatemala and Honduras. The Justice Department said in a court filing that the State Department has begun talks with foreign governments on how the administration may be able to aid the effort.

Left unresolved Friday was a temporary halt on deporting reunified families that Sabraw imposed on July 16 to allow time to address another dispute. The ACLU has asked that families have at least a week to decide if they want to seek asylum after they are reunited with their children, a step that the administration opposes.

In late June, Sabraw ordered that more than 2,500 children rejoin their parents by July 26. Hundreds remain apart, however, mainly because their many of those parents are outside the country.