Why is a Former Migrant Worker Running Detention Centers for the U.S. Government?

Former migrant worker Dr. Juan J. Sanchez is the founder and CEO of Southwest Key Programs, the non-profit organization that runs the Casa Padre immigrant detention center in Brownsville, Texas which denied entry to Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley.

UPDATED 06/21/18 08:37 A.M. PST: The president has signed an order he claims will put an end to the policy, but there’s a catch that insures Sanchez will continue to profit. Read more →

According to the official Southwest Key Programs website, the nonprofit organization is dedicated to “Opening doors to opportunity so individuals can achieve their dreams.”

On the organization’s About page, Sanchez is described as having been “shaped by his experiences as a young migrant worker.”

On his personal biography page, however, he is depicted as just another child growing up poor along the border in Brownsville, Texas.

Either way, though, his story eventually takes him to Harvard where he achieved a doctorate degree in education.

Southwest Key Programs was established in a San Antonio basement with just five other people in 1987; today, its founder has a six figure salary and is one of the highest-paid nonprofit CEOs.

What follows is the nonprofit’s description of their programs and services:

“Today, the non-profit serves youth and their families in seven states across the U.S. Through Southwest Key’s work in the juvenile justice field, thousands of youth have been diverted from facilities and allowed to finish school. Through Southwest Key’s immigrant children’s shelters, thousands of unaccompanied minors have been reunified with their families.”

Southwest Key Programs doesn’t like to refer to their facilities as detention facilities, but rather as “shelters” and prefer to call themselves “first responders on the front lines of youth immigrant crises.”

When Senator Merkley attempted to enter one of Southwest Key Programs’ facilities in Brownsville, Texas, Mr. Sanchez and his staff denied him entry and called the police on him.

You would think that a nonprofit organization that boasts of doing so much good for immigrant children would want to showcase themselves, their staff, and their facility, as well as their charges, who, according to their claims, should be happy, healthy, safe, and well-cared for.

It can’t be denied, however, that Southwest Key Programs and its founder have received the approval of their local community as well as that of the nonprofit world, as they are both recipients of dozens of awards.

And it should be noted that, for his part, Sanchez has done his fair share of community service, both on a national and a local scale.

So what leads a man like this, who’s in charge of a nonprofit such as this one, to deny entry to a U.S. senator; and more importantly, what leads him to be involved in one of the single most scandalous policy enterprises ever undertaken by the U.S. government?

After the Merkley incident, Southwest Key Programs issued a statement in response.

The statement begins by underscoring the nonprofit’s longevity, and doubles down on their claims to be “humanitarian first responders,” and touting the superiority of their services.

It then moves into an expression of regret at “having to turn away” the senator, citing the Office of Refugee Resettlement as the final decision-maker when it comes to approving a tour of the facility.

“The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) prohibits any facility from allowing visits that have not been approved by them, even if it is a U.S. Senator. 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. We have reached out to the Senator and connected with his staff because we would like to see this happen.”

In conclusion, the statement focuses on hammering home that the abandoned Walmart they’re using to house these children is “not a detention facility,” saying instead that “it is an unaccompanied minor shelter with many layers of oversight.”

Their last suggestion to readers is to read the official statement released by the ORR in response to the incident.

Unsurprisingly, the statement released by the ORR is not only inflammatory in its content, but even more propagandistic than the one released by Southwest Key Programs.

“United States Senator Jeff Merkley (OR-D), along with five other individuals, attempted to enter an unaccompanied alien children’s (UAC) shelter unannounced and broadcast live via social media last night in Texas. Thankfully for the safety, security and dignity of the children being cared for there, they were denied access. The Department of Health and Human Services takes the legal mandate to care for these children seriously. 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. Senator Merkley should respect the UAC program and engage in the appropriate processes, as many of his colleagues have done before him, to visit ORR facilities. We would welcome him to engage in that process so that he may visit the facility to make headway on this important issue, rather than just headlines.”

After this pointed critique, the statement then launches into a stalwart defense of the ORR as well as the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the ORR.

It very well may be that Southwest Key Programs is running a tight ship, and that the children in their care are truly being looked after.

It may very well be that Senator Merkley eventually achieves a tour, and that it will quell all our concerns and discomfort at the idea of infants and toddlers being separated from their parents.

And it very well may be that Juan J. Sanchez is a humanitarian soul with nothing but good intentions who truly is providing a safe space for these children.

Until those doors are opened, however, we will continue to question just why a man of Sanchez’s experience would agree to contract his services out to the federal government in order to provide holding space for captured immigrant children.

To read the account of a former Southwest Key Programs employee, click here.

To read our original coverage of Senator Merkley’s surprise visit to the Casa Padre detention facility, click here.


2 thoughts on “Why is a Former Migrant Worker Running Detention Centers for the U.S. Government?

  1. Pingback: Former Southwest Key Programs Employee Sounds the Alarm | Politics in The Iron Triangle

  2. Pingback: Presidential Order to End Family Separation Policy Won’t Fix the Problem | Politics in The Iron Triangle

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