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Grijalva decries secrecy after 'gut-wrenching' tour of Tucson center for detained migrant kids

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva on Friday toured a Southwest Key facility in Tucson where he reiterated disapproval of the policies that have dozens of migrant children locked away from their parents and out of public view, with some of the detainees as young as 5.

“Kindergarten age,” said the Democratic lawmaker, who represents much of Southern Arizona. “It’s gut-wrenching in the sense that the frustration that many of us feel is that we are not doing what we need to do to unify them with their parents.”

He estimated 300 children were at the shelter, with 79 of them separated from their parents at the border under a zero-tolerance policy the Trump administration announced last spring.

Grijalva was vague in describing conditions inside the facility but said the rooms closely resemble those in a hotel. The children smiled at him and said hello, said Grijalva, an immigration advocate who’s among the voices calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be broken up.

The visit came a month after the congressman requested a tour of the facility.

Southwest Key sits on North Oracle Road in an unmarked building with large windows and drawn blinds. A metal fence blocks a road that runs alongside and to the back of the building, which is next to another building housing Chicanos Por La Causa, a nonprofit that helps secure social services for Latinos.

Grijalva assailed the federal government’s lack of information about the facility. Members of the news media were not allowed inside Southwest Key during the visit, although Grijalva said he told Southwest Key officials that news crews should be allowed to enter.

“This level of paranoia and secrecy does not help the cause,” Grijalva said.

He said he talked with staff members about how children will be reunited with their parents, who could be thousands of miles away. The Trump administration, after taking fire over the separation policy, halted it under an executive order. More than 3,000 children were separated at the border and taken to facilities across the country, including Tucson and Phoenix.

“We are trying to expedite them but we can’t skip any steps. We have to make sure that we are connecting people with the right people,” Grijalva said.

A Southwest Key spokeswoman did not respond to a call for comment on Friday.

Congress returns to session on Monday, and Grijalva expects the 30-day reunification requirement ordered by a federal judge in California will be extended beyond the current July 27 deadline.

Grijalva’s tour came after first lady Melania Trump last week visited a Phoenix shelter for migrant children and toured a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Tucson.

Southwest Key, which contracts with the U.S. government to house unaccompanied minors at shelters across the country, has been under scrutiny for operations in Texas, according to Texas Monthly. The magazine said the program “has been cited for hundreds of violations by Texas state regulators during shelter inspections over the past three years.”

Grijalva's tour comes as public outrage over the separation of children from their parents still simmers. On Saturday, Grijalva went to Nogales, Ariz., and commented on the policy as part of a nationwide-protest hosted in all 50 states and joined by thousands, called Families Belong Together.

The facility has been operated by Southwest Key in Tucson since 2014, and the nonprofit contractor has managed youth justice and immigrant programs across the country for more than 30 years. But the recent steps taken by the Trump administration have again brought the facility into the public consciousness.

Even Southwest Key has tried to create sunlight between its own programs managed by the federal government and the Trump administration's child separation policy. 

Southwest Key stands to receive up $458 million from the U.S. government in 2018, however, the company criticized the family separation policy, writing on their website, "Southwest Key Programs does not support separating families at the border." Noting that the agency has been around for three decades serving young people, including immigrant children, the group said that, "We believe keeping families together is better for the children, parents and our communities, and we remain committed to providing compassionate care and reunification."

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Bloomberg reported Southwest Key's grants for 2018, and noted that the U.S. government expects to spend up to $943 million in grants to hold and provide care for children, according to data from the Administration for Children and Families, a part of Health and Human Services.

On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that Trump administration officials would commit to a "zero tolerance" policy against people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. This required officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection to refer anyone caught crossing the border to the Justice Department for prosecution, including parents traveling with children. This meant that while mothers and fathers were held by the U.S. Marshals before they were prosecuted for the misdemeanor of illegal entry, their children were stripped away from them and handed over to Health and Human Services.

From May 5 to June 9, under that policy, 2,342 children were separated from their parents. And, because the policy was, as a federal judge called it "chaotic," even once the program was ended, HHS still has more than 3,000 children in custody, including 100 children younger than five, said HHS Secretary Alex Azar during a press call with reporters on Thursday. 

Azar said that HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement was working through 11,800 cases for "unaccompanied alien children" now in HHS custody, to understand which children were split from their parents by Department of Homeland Security officials. 

And, HHS faces a major deadline. By next Tuesday, July 10, HHS must begin reuniting children young than 5 with their parents after a federal judge imposed two tight deadlines as part of a class-action lawsuit launched by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two women who had their children stripped from them while they were in DHS custody. 

U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw wrote in a 24-page decision that federal officials had 14 days to return children younger than 5 to their parents and until July 26 days to reunite all other children with their parents. 

The lawsuit also showed that Trump administration officials had been stripping immigrant children away from their parents months before Sessions' announcement. 

The decision sent HHS officials scrambling, and Azar said his department had not returned children to their parents by Thursday, because the agency was still trying to vet parents. 

As Dara Lind at Vox noted, this statement is "odd" considering a press release sent out by DHS, which said "The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have a process established to ensure that family members know the location of their children and have regular communication after separation to ensure that those adults who are subject to removal are reunited with their children for the purposes of removal." 

"The United States government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families," DHS said. 

And, according to that same release, CBP had "reunited 552 unaccompanied alien children in their custody who were separated from adults as part of the Zero Tolerance initiative." 

DHS also took pains to note that "there will be a small number of children" who were separated for reasons "other than zero tolerance that will remain separated."

"Generally only if the familial relationship cannot be confirmed, we believe the adult is a threat to the safety of the child, or the adult is a criminal alien," DHS said.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Paul Ingram contributed to this report.


TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Rep. Raúl Grijalva during the Families Belong Together protest in Nogales, Ariz., last Saturday.