Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Southwest Key Programs

Southwest Key sues city over permit for child detention warehouse

Screw them.

The Austin-based nonprofit trying to open a shelter to house migrant children east of downtown sued the city of Houston Friday, alleging a discriminatory, baseless and politically motivated campaign to prevent it from opening the facility.

Southwest Key Programs alleges in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Houston, that the city is “manipulating” its permitting process, invalidating previously issued permits without due process and refusing to conduct inspections or issue new permits. The suit claims these actions are discriminatory based on some combination of the city’s opposition to federal immigration policies, interest in “political gain” or the race, color, national origin, ancestry, alienage or immigration status of the unaccompanied minors who would be housed there.

The lawsuit asks a court to grant Southwest Key monetary damages and declare that it can proceed with its plans to open the facility.

“The city of Houston has ignored its own regulations, and past practices, and has knowingly misrepresented the facts to the state of Texas to deny Southwest Key a license to open the facility,” Southwest Key said in a statement released Friday. “City officials bent the rules and broke the law for the sole purpose of advancing the mayor’s political agenda.”

[…]

“The city is only interested in the safety, security and well-being of children and will continue to enforce all building codes and regulations designed to accomplish that purpose,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “Southwest Key has repeatedly been asked to provide plans that meet existing building codes for the intended use of the facility at 419 Emancipation Street in Houston. They have failed to do so. Hopefully, they will realize that they are not exempt and must follow the rules like everyone else. We continue to wait for them to respond. In the meantime, we will review the pleading and respond accordingly.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. I have no idea if Southwest Key’s claims have any validity, and to be honest I don’t care. Southwest Key can go fuck themselves.

Mayor Turner says “No!” to the child detention warehouse

Damn right.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner called on the owner of a building east of downtown Houston and the nonprofit hoping to operate the former warehouse as a detention center for immigrant children separated from their families at the nation’s southern border to reconsider their plans.

The mayor also said he is in no rush to issue city permits at the site, and called on the state not to issue a childcare license to the 54,000-square-foot facility two blocks north of BBVA Compass Stadium for use by federal contractor Southwest Key Programs.

Turner, flanked by numerous nonprofit, religious and political leaders, said he wanted to show a unified front to protest the “unjust and immoral policy” the Trump administration began enforcing in April, when a “zero tolerance” approach began driving up the number of children removed from their parents upon crossing the border illegally.

[…]

Turner said he respects the work Southwest Key has done in the past, noting that he worked with the group’s leaders during his time in the Texas Legislature, but the mayor said these circumstances are objectionable and proclaimed he will not “be an enabler” in this process.

“I’ve done my best to try to stay clear of the national dialogue on many issues. I’ve done my best to try to focus on the issues that confront the city of Houston, recognizing that we need the partnership of the national — the feds — the state, working with the city,” Turner said. “This one is different. There comes a time when Americans, when Houstonians, when Texans have to say to those higher than ourselves: This is wrong. This is just wrong.”

You know how I feel about this. The city can take all the time it wants, double- and triple-checking on the permit, because Lord knows the state doesn’t give a damn. Everyone on Council should be behind the Mayor on this as well. It shouldn’t be that hard for anyone to do, since even a bunch of Republican members of Congress are not happy with the forced separation of children from their parentsnot that they’ll do anything about it, of course – with the notable exception of that paragon of virtue, Ken Paxton. Just don’t be fooled by Ted Cruz. The Trib and Texas Monthly have more.

UPDATE: The longer version of the story suggests how the city might slow-walk this.

Asked by a reporter if he planned to “slow-walk” the permitting process, Turner smiled. He said city fire inspectors have not visited the property and that health inspectors have yet to grant a food service permit. Code enforcement officials already have granted a certificate of occupancy, affirming that the facility meets the minimum requirements to operate as a “dormitory/shelter,” though Houston Public Works spokeswoman Alanna Reed said the paperwork connected with that application made no mention of Southwest Key, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement or the plan to house children at the site.

Health department director Stephen Williams said there are “certain deficiencies” at the site that would need to be corrected before a permit is issued. Fire Chief Sam Pena said switching from housing adults to housing children will require a more thorough review than what the city fire marshal’s office conducted when the facility served as a shelter after Harvey.

“If it’s primarily children, having enough people there to ensure proper evacuation, proper access, because you’re dealing with a different type of juvenile person,” Pena said. “We’re going to be meticulous and judicious as far as our inspections, especially for the proposed use of this, but it’s nothing different than what we’d do for any other business.”

These things do take time, you know.

Say “No!” to warehousing “tender age” children

We cannot allow this.

The large vacant warehouse in downtown Houston has housed women and families who were once homeless and adults displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Until now, however, it has never sheltered small children who are on their own in a strange country, many of them separated from their parents who were jailed after illegally crossing the southern border.

Southwest Key Programs, a Texas nonprofit that has a lucrative contract with the federal government to care for thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children, confirmed Friday it has signed a lease with the owner of the warehouse at 419 Emancipation Ave.

Its application with the state requests a general residential operating license to hold up to 240 children between the ages of “0 to 17.” Several stakeholders who work with immigrant minors said they have been told the facility would largely serve “tender age” children who are younger than 12, as well as pregnant and nursing teenagers.

[…]

Federal officials said Friday about 2,000 children have been separated from their parents between mid-April, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new zero-tolerance policy, and the end of May.

The sudden surge has overwhelmed the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which now has more than 11,400 children in their care in about 100 shelters across the country that are almost full. The ORR has issued calls to agencies that run such facilities for the government to see if they can increase their capacity and are considering housing children in tent-like structures on military bases, including in Texas.

“They are being required to house increasingly large numbers of very young children … who should have never gone to (the agency) in the first place,” said Jennifer Podkul, director of policy for Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that provides services to unaccompanied minors.

Keeping such young children in a residential facility like the one proposed in Houston would represent a sharp shift from previous practice.

“My understanding is that the kids would be sleeping at this facility in Houston, and that’s surprising and would be a different structure than we’ve ever seen before for this type of population,” she said. “This would be the first one.”

Small children and pregnant teenagers are usually placed with foster parents who work with specialized organizations that contract with the federal government to provide such care. The minors spend their nights in a foster home and their days in a licensed facility for children, where they are provided services such as medical and legal screenings.

“Traditionally the government has relied on families and supported homestays for this population because of their special needs,” Podkul said. “Very young children can’t sleep through the night all the time. They have physical limitations because of their size. … I don’t know how you provide for that in such a large facility.”

This so-called “shelter” would be one of these:

In South Texas, pediatricians started sounding the alarm weeks ago as migrant shelters began filling up with younger children separated from their parents after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

The concerned pediatricians contacted Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and she flew to Texas and visited a shelter for migrant children in the Rio Grande Valley. There, she saw a young girl in tears. “She couldn’t have been more than 2 years old,” Kraft says. “Just crying and pounding and having a huge, huge temper tantrum. This child was just screaming, and nobody could help her. And we know why she was crying. She didn’t have her mother. She didn’t have her parent who could soothe her and take care of her.”

The number of migrant children in U.S. government custody is soaring — partly the result of a policy decision by the Trump administration to separate children from their parents who are being prosecuted for unlawful entry. Hundreds of the children being held in shelters are under age 13.

Medical professionals, members of Congress and religious leaders are calling on the Trump administration to stop separating migrant families. They question whether these shelter facilities are appropriate for younger children.

[…]

Pediatricians and immigrant advocates are warning that separating migrant children from their families can cause “toxic stress” that disrupts a child’s brain development and harms long-term health.

At the facility in South Texas, Kraft says, the staff told her that federal regulations prevented them from touching or holding the child to soothe her.

While shelter managers and other experts say there is no such rule, Kraft says the confusion underscores why these shelters are not the right place for young children — especially kids who have fled dangerous countries and who have just been separated from their parents. “By separating parents and children, we are doing irreparable harm to these children. The long-term concern of what we call toxic stress is that brains are not developed efficiently or effectively,” Kraft says. “And these children go on to have behavior problems, to have long-term medical problems.”

This is cruel and inhumane, and it is being done as a matter of deliberate policy. What kind of people want to separate parents from their children like this? CM Robert Gallegos, in whose district this would be, wrote this on Facebook:

The mayor will host a press conference early next week regarding the federal government’s proposal. While the City was not involved in the decision or notified beforehand, we will advocate for these children and do all we can to ensure they are cared for with compassion and dignity. Children should be with their families, not warehoused in a detention center hundreds of miles away from their parents. The Trump administration’s inhumane policy of separating families is shameful and goes against the very values our nation was founded on.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia released this statement:

This week it was discovered that federal authorities, in conjunction with contracted private partners, have signed a lease to open a baby jail to detain child immigrants just east of downtown Houston. State Senator Sylvia Garcia issued the following statement in reaction:

“Now is the time to gather together to stop this baby jail before a single child seeking refuge is locked up in our city. The Trump administration has made it clear that it will rip children away from their parents despite legal and child development experts telling them that it is unnecessary and known to cause lifelong harm. No law requires this. Humanity demands compassion. We must say as a community with one voice that jailing children away from their parents is wrong, it should not happen anywhere, and we as Houstonians will not allow it to happen here. Not now. Not ever.”

We need to hear from all of our elected officials. This is an abomination, and we cannot let it happen.