Nonprofit Execs Rake in Cash From Child Detention Center Funding

The surge in child-immigrant arrivals, and resulting detentions, since 2014 has been very good financially for the people who run Southwest Key Programs.

Mike Blake/Reuters

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The intense scrutiny this week on immigration policies that have forced the separation of undocumented families at the U.S. border with Mexico has inevitably turned to the companies operating detention facilities where thousands of children are being housed. Some of the names are familiar to the federal incarceration business, such as the GEO Group, a leading private-prison company that has seen its fair share of federal procurement dollars, even as human-rights groups fault the company for poor medical care that has resulted in numerous detainee deaths and inmates allege violations of a federal human-trafficking law.

But another operator of such detention facilities sticks out. Unlike most private-prison operators, Southwest Key Programs is a nonprofit group, which allows us to glean more information about its operations and finances than we could about a private company. Since 2007, SKP has received more than $1.5 billion in grants and contracts from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees most child-immigrant detention centers.

The Austin-based group runs one of the larger detention facilities for children separated from parents who are detained and charged with illegally entering the U.S. under the Trump administration's new “zero-tolerance” prosecutorial approach. The facility, dubbed Casa Padre and adorned with murals of Donald Trump and other presidents, is housed in a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas. It’s been cited by state health authorities more than a dozen times since last year for infractions including multiple instances of improper handling of food, unsanitary bathrooms, an employee making “belittling remarks” about a child detainee, and one instance in which a detainee was diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease and not given medical treatment for two weeks.

Despite those infractions, SKP appears to be a more community-minded organization than private-prison companies that have been awarded similar contracts. Its executives and board members boast affiliations with major Latino community and advocacy organizations in the Southwest, and documents on file with the state of California show that SKP has received contributions from immigrant-rights groups such as the National Council of La Raza.

But the surge in child-immigrant arrivals, and resulting detentions, since 2014 has also been very good financially for the people who run SKP. From 2012 through 2016, according to annual tax filings, SKP President and CEO Juan Sanchez’s compensation grew nearly threefold, from less than $280,000 to more than $786,000. In 2017, it nearly doubled again, to just under $1.5 million. That’s more than the 2017 non-stock compensation of any GEO Group executive with the exception of its CEO.

In an interview with a local television station Tuesday, Sanchez defended SKP’s work in “taking these kids, putting them in a shelter, providing the best service that we can for them, and reuniting them with their families. That’s what this is all about.”

“We’re not the bad guys,” Sanchez said. “We’re the good guys.” It happens that the good guys are being very well compensated.

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