BY DR. JUAN. SANCHEZ
More than 30 years ago, I was inspired to build an organization that works to keep kids out of prisons and detention facilities. I wanted to help open doors to opportunity so they can achieve their dreams. After a childhood spent watching friends and neighbors get caught up in the juvenile detention system, I realized that kids of color were overrepresented in prisons and jails and underrepresented in colleges and universities. I wanted to help change that, and as a result of this we have helped keep thousands of kids in the community.
Through the years we have created innovative programming with that very aim in mind. Experts and activists the world over have studied our models. We’ve been recognized by the League of Latin American United Citizens (LULAC) and National Council of La Raza (now UnidosUS), the largest Latino advocacy organization in the country. I was invited on a fact-finding trip to Germany with several United States Latino service providers to share best practices during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in that country. And when a working group from the United Nations Human Rights Council was dispatched to the United States in 2016 because of concerns over the number of people incarcerated in this country, Southwest Key was highlighted for providing “excellent service to unaccompanied minors” even while the working group noted that “not all providers were such quality.” Through all that praise, the measure of doing good work remains defined through the experiences of the children we serve.
Over the past few weeks, Southwest Key’s reputation has been assaulted by a tidal wave of misinformation regarding a new Department of Homeland Security policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. We are being lumped in with detention centers and confused with those separating children from their families. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
And yet, in the face of these misrepresentations, we continue to operate with unwavering dedication to children. Safe reunification, as it has always been, remains our focus. Providing safe, loving, caring protection for children is our day to day.
In the past two weeks, our offices have received literally thousands of phone calls and emails offering donations of furniture, toys, bedding and more. It is heartening to see such incredible support from the community, however to be clear, Southwest Key’s unaccompanied minor shelters are fully funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to care for children in a safe, child-friendly and culturally appropriate way. Children are clothed, fed, given medical care, counseling, schooling — and hugging is most certainly allowed.
We have trained staff who give compassionate care in a nurturing environment. Here’s the really important part: the real goal of what we do is to reunify the children with their families as soon as is safely possible. This has been the case for the past 20 years that Southwest Key has operated unaccompanied minor shelters. That has not changed.
Our staff is busy navigating daily operations and taking care of children, just as we’ve always done. We’re working to get the truth out, in the face of many misstatements: We don’t pay attention to the swirl of politics. We don’t put kids in cages. We don’t run detention centers.
The president’s order ending family separations is a good first step. But there will be more for our elected officials and everyday citizens to do. In the coming weeks, we will call on our neighbors and community members to participate in an advisory forum to lend their voices to help answer the question of where we go from here. There are, and will be, vulnerable children who need the care and support that Southwest Key provides. What we need, and hope to have, is your voice — speaking with and for us.
Dr. Juan Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Southwest Key Programs, a non-profit based in Austin which operates facilities housing unaccompanied minors in the Rio Grande Valley.