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Separating refugee and immigrant children from their parents at the border isn’t just a cruel injustice to the families affected; it's also good business, and the latest enterprise wanting in on the action is a Texas-based charter school chain connected to the operator of detention centers reaping the biggest share of federal government contracts.

As the Washington Post originally reported, deep in its account of conditions at a border detention facility for children operated by Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, IRS forms from 2016-17 that show compensation of $1.48 million to the organization's CEO Juan Sanchez were filed by "a related organization, an Austin charter school Sanchez founded."

Wiley blogger Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana public school teacher, picked up the scent and reports Southwest Key indeed operates a charter business called East Austin College Prep which shares the same Austin street address. Other “related organizations” appearing on the same 2016-17 IRS filings include Southwest Key Maintenance, which received $113,000 for “janitorial services,” and Cafe Del Sol, which received $336,000 for “food services.” The school paid Southwest Key Programs, $1.14 million for “administration and rent.”

All four entities, the school and its related "independent contractors,” share the same street address.

"Sanchez sits on the charter school board as its secretary," Schneider writes, and Southwest Key’s VP, Alexia Rodriguez, is board chair.

It's a cozy relationship among an operator of youth detention centers receiving federal funds and grants, "public" charter schools funded by Texas taxpayers, a "nonprofit" organization providing a lease agreement and administration services to the charters, and for-profit entities servicing the schools. And the fact the schools, which overwhelmingly enroll Hispanic students, are connected to a booming business separating Hispanic students from their parents and detaining them in facilities at the border raises legitimate questions and concerns of whether this new "prison-to-school pipeline" will be just another way for private entrepreneurs to exploit vulnerable children.

A Booming Business in Children

Keep in mind, Southwest Key is the biggest player in the growing business of immigrant and refugee family detention. "Southwest Key has 26 shelters in Texas, Arizona, and California, housing more than 5,100 immigrant minors. That's about half of the total population in the custody of Health and Human Services," NPR reports. "Its federal contracts now tally more than $400 million annually."

President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy for refugee and migrant families coming to the border has severely strained Southwest Key's facilities – at the Brownsville shelter in a former Walmart super store, the Post story says, sleeping quarters built to accommodate four beds have been expanded to five, and a rigid round-the-clock schedule for managing the influx of children leaves little time for recreation and education.

Former employees, NPR reports, have spoken of "prison"-like conditions inside the shelters, and experts have warned of the psychologically damaging impact that the austere treatment in these facilities can have on traumatized children.

"Texas regulators found more than 150 violations at more than a dozen shelters run by Southwest Key in the last two years," Dallas News reports, citing violations of employee "judgment," poor management of medicines and cleaning supplies, and failure to run background checks on some staff members.

Numerous national outlets recently reported a Honduran teenager housed at Southwest Key's Brownsville facility walked out of the building and was never found. He is reported to be in Mexico and headed back to Honduras, but no one seems to know for sure.

Nevertheless, Southwest Key has asked state regulators for permission to house more children. From its base of 16 shelters in five Texas counties, Southwest Key is also trying to open another facility in Houston, says the Dallas News reporter. "but the city’s mayor is fighting against turning a warehouse into a temporary shelter."

A Charter Windfall

Southwest Key is also expanding its charter school business too, and the detention center enterprises is poised to work hand in hand with its expanding school network.

Southwest Key's two campuses in Austin, East Austin College Prep Academy and East Austin College Prep At MLK, have earned praise for educating low-income, mostly Hispanic students who have a high-propensity of dropping out; although, the schools have yet to record an official four-year graduation rate, and students perform well below state averages on college readiness exams such as SAT, ACT, AP, and International Baccalaureate.

The charter operation, which recently rebranded under management of Promesa Public Schools, is approved to expand to new campuses for the fall semester of 2018 in Corpus Christi and Brownsville, where Southwest operates four immigrant shelters including Case Padre, the detention center in the old Walmart store.

According to Dallas News, leaders from Promesa and Southwest Key have approached officials, who oversee education of school aged children in Brownsville and the surrounding county, with a proposal to use the new Brownsville charter school's resources and new campus "to serve about 1,000 kids being housed in the nonprofit's shelters."

The reporter, Eva-Marie Ayala, notes that federal law requires that contracted care providers for detained refugee and immigrant children "conduct an educational assessment" of young detainees and provide education services to address their needs. Ayala also notes that Promesa's Austin schools enrolled about 630 students in the past school year which netted the organization about $6 million from the state. "That equates to about $9,500 a student," Ayala calculates, so adding a thousand news students for the new Brownsville campus might yield $9.5 million for Promesa, using her reckoning.

Southwest Key is also in discussions with the Brownsville school district to "partner" on educating the detained children, but any way you divvy up the total population of detained children among the school district and Promesa, it's a windfall to Southwest Key.

A 'Prison-to-School Pipeline'?

For its part, representatives of Southwest Key and its CEO Suarez have strongly defended its facilities, arguing that what the nonprofit provides is significantly more humane than what other detention facilities provide, although of late, the organization has not been responding to reporters' requests for comments, and its website has gone dark.

Local public school advocates in Corpus Christi have staged protests of the new Promesa campus opening in their community, accusing Southwest Key of “profiting off the backs of immigrant children.” And an Austin-based advocacy group for Latin American citizens is urging that state, county, and city governments boycott Southwest Key.

"is Southwest Key acting compassionately, or is it complicit in a controversial policy?" the NPR reporter asks. "Is it protecting kids or profiting off them?" To those questions, we should add, "Is it providing education to these children or using them to grow its charter school business?"

Advocates for incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated youth have long talked of the need for a "prison-to-school pipeline" for acclimating children and teens from detention centers to mainstream education and a better future. The term is a play on words from the better-known school-to-prison pipeline that refers to the frequent practice of schools, especially charter schools, to use harsh discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, to push out low-income students of color into the criminal justice system.

In developing its collaboration of charter schools with migrant children detention centers, Southwest Key seems to be perverting the idea of an authentic prison-to-school pipeline designed to rescue children from deep injustices and harm. Instead of behaving as a public institution operating altruistically for the benefit of these vulnerable and traumatized children, Southwest Key is following in the pathway of an opportunistic industry.

(Photo credit: Texas ACLU

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