Southwest Key Programs, a non-profit that contracts with the federal government to house children who cross the border illegally, has cared for 19,842 children this fiscal year and just 42, or .21 percent, have left on their own, a source familiar with Southwest Key’s operations tells National Review.
Southwest Key became the subject of widespread media scrutiny this weekend after a 15-year-old boy walked off the premises of its Brownsville, Texas center. Opponents of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration-enforcement policy cited the reports as evidence of a lack of adequate supervision, as well as questionable living conditions, at such facilities.
“If the facility was such a great idea, why are they trying to get out?” Tony Martinez, the mayor of Brownsville, said on Sunday. “Most of the people that escape, they escape from jails. They escape from prisons, because it’s not a fun place to be at. I can just imagine what might be going through that young man’s head, at 15 years old: ‘What am I doing here?’”
Michelle Brané, the director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told the New York Times that the child’s departure “raises questions about the care that’s being provided.”
According to the source, though the children that Southwest Key cares for — males ten to 17 years old — are free to leave at any time, cases of voluntarily departure are exceedingly rare because the conditions at its shelters are relatively comfortable.
“The journey that these kids have taken has been nothing but stress,” the source says. “When they get to a facility it may be the first time they’ve been able to be a kid. Some of these kids have never had three meals a day. Some of them have never seen a video game. In some cases its the first time they’ve ever been in a safe place and can feel like a kid.”
Following the 15-year-old boy’s departure, Southwest Key reached out to a man who claimed to be his relative, according to the aforementioned source. The purported relative informed Southwest Key that he spoke to the boy Sunday and, as of that conversation, the boy was in Mexico en route back to his home country of Honduras.
The boy scaled a perimeter fence during an outdoor-recreation session Saturday afternoon and began walking away. Southwest Key employees were unable to physically restrain him because they are not licensed to do so. As a child-care facility, their protocol dictates that they attempt to convince the child to stay and, failing that, call the local police to report the child as missing.
“As a licensed child-care center, if a child attempts to leave any of our facilities, we cannot restrain them. We are not a detention center,” Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said in a statement. “We talk to them and try to get them to stay. If they leave the property, we call law enforcement. A 15-old boy left the Casa Padre child-care center in Brownsville yesterday. We called local law enforcement and continue to work with them.”