WASHINGTON — The outrage generated by President Trump’s forced separations of immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border would seem to leave little room for middle ground. Advocates including Latino groups, Catholic bishops, the United Nations, and members of Congress are condemning the practice as inhumane.
But one major Latino charity is trying to occupy a gray area in the midst of the firestorm, with limited success at escaping controversy: Texas-based Southwest Key Programs Inc., a pillar of the Hispanic nonprofit world with deep respect across the country.
It now finds itself accused of complicity in Trump’s separations policy, raising broader questions about how much moral responsibility is borne by the thousands of people who are working to carry out that policy, even when the job includes taking care of the children themselves.
The $240 million-a-year Southwest Key organization has big contracts with the government to house immigrant minors in its two dozen low-security shelters in Texas, Arizona, and California, a population that in recent weeks has exploded with infants and children removed from their parents.
The Associated Press reported Friday that 2,000 children have been removed from their parents since April. Southwest Key estimates it has roughly 500 of those children in its facilities. It also is the only Hispanic-run organization with federal Department of Health and Human Services contracts to house the children en masse.
That has thrust Southwest Key into the middle of a burning human rights controversy and into what its chief executive described in an interview as a “dilemma.’’ A spokesman for the group said it has been deluged with angry calls and e-mails, including one person who called Southwest Key “the nonprofit wing of the Nazi party.”
There’s even been an internal debate within Southwest Key’s board of directors.
“It’s inhumane to me,” said Rosa Santis, the treasurer of the board for Southwest Key, which is based in Austin. “I think it’s horrible that they’re really separating kids from their parents.”
But the group’s leadership is trying to find the balance between complicity and compassion: Is there some good that can be done by participating in a system with which you disagree? Is being part of the process better than leaving the care of children to others? Or is it better to back away?
“We’ve had a lot of discussion about this,” said Juan Sanchez, the group’s CEO. “What we see are kids without families. We don’t see policy, we see kids with needs. . . . Our focus is on taking care of kids.”
He concluded that Southwest Key should continue working with the Trump administration and prepare to expand to accommodate more children.
“If we don’t do the work we do, somebody else is going to do the work,” said Sanchez, who, with his wife, collectively earned roughly $1 million in compensation in 2015. “These are people who do not understand these kids’ language or these kids’ culture. . . . There would be plenty of other folks who would take this on and not care.”
Sanchez said there are lines he would not cross: Building a “tent city” for children would be inappropriate, he said, and not consistent with the group’s standards. The Department of Health and Human Services is hunting for sites for a tent encampment on government property to handle the burgeoning pool of separated children, including potential sites on military bases.
Other nonprofits are also in an awkward position. Catholic Charities also takes some of the separated children, according to Southwest Key. Several Catholic archbishops have spoken out against the policy, including Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in Boston, who said in a statement that Trump’s policy “terrorizes” children. Catholic Charities USA didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Southwest Key can point to a pile of accolades from the Hispanic community for its work before the current controversy. The group has been repeatedly named as one the top five Hispanic nonprofits in the country by Hispanic Business Magazine. Sanchez has served on the board of directors for the National Council of La Raza and won the “rising to the challenge” award from the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Now Southwest is risking that reputation as it participates in the Trump crackdown.
“This is raising issues about whether you are complicit at some level in a process and a procedure that has moral questions,” said Robert Carey, who oversaw Southwest Key’s contracts when he was the director of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement from 2015 to 2017 during the Obama administration. “They are, in some way, part of a system that is not serving children and not protecting children. . . . It is immoral to tear children out of the arms of their parents.”
On the other hand, said Carey, who is now a fellow at the Open Society Foundations, “By being there, are they preventing further harm?”
Southwest Key became the unintentional poster child for Trump’s new policy in part because it runs the converted Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, that Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, attempted to visit this month to draw attention to the policy.
Merkley was turned away when he tried to tour the facility, a moment his staff captured via a Facebook live video that went viral. Since then Southwest Key has adopted a different public relations strategy, and opened the 250,000-square-foot Brownsville facility for a tour Wednesday by reporters.
“The outrage over the policy has found a face in Southwest Key,” said Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, a deputy vice president with UnidosUS, the new name for the Council of La Raza. “Yes, we can look at Southwest Key, and some folks could ask: ‘What choice would you make?’ ” But, she said: “They are not making the choice of the policy. . . . Nothing is going to stop this administration.”
Southwest Key is caring for about 5,100 migrant children, and Sanchez estimated that 10 percent of their population have been forcibly separated. The organization’s role is causing angst in Austin, where other Hispanic groups are upset that members of their local Latino community would participate in the crackdown.
Sanchez “is enabling the federal government to divide us and imprison us and separate us,” said Cynthia Valadez, a deputy director with the League of United Latin American Citizens chapter in Austin. “It is a tragedy that in our own Latino community we have someone who is setting himself up to be a Latino leader who is making money off the imprisonment of children and the suffering that’s been inflicted.”
Sanchez, who earned his doctorate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, said he tried to model the group off a Massachusetts organization called the Key Program Inc. that helps troubled children. Sanchez’s organization grew from one shelter in 1987, and now operates in eight states.
It saw explosive growth under the Obama administration, winning $1.3 billion in contracts largely from the Department of Health and Human Services since 2014.
“It is a major player, a well-run organization,” said Eskinder Negash, a former head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Obama administration. Negash said he does not have a moral quandary over groups providing services that support Trump’s policy.
“I don’t want to use children to make a point,” said Negash, who is now the president of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit. “Their best interest is what should drive everybody.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.