AUSTIN — Protesters gathered in Austin Thursday to demand that city leaders cut ties with "Southwest Key," an organization that has taken in immigrant children who've been separated from their parents at the border.
Southwest Key Programs, an Austin nonprofit, has been under scrutiny over its shelters which house hundreds of undocumented children. The controversy began during the height of President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, which separated families at the border. Public outcry against the nonprofit began in June after staff at the shelter in Brownsville denied a senator from Oregon access to the facility.
"What we're hearing here is lies and perpetuation of a belief that they can justify what they're doing -- by separating kids from their family. It's one of the most disgusting and appalling acts that we can do in our society. And when we do it, we have erred on the side of evil. It is wrong to separate and there is no way they can justify it being right," said Ken Zarafis, president of Education Austin.
CEO of Southwest Key, Juan Sanchez, commented on the accusations.
"We brought them water, we brought them snacks, and we want them to have the opportunity to sit down with us and have a civil conversation about why it is they feel the way that they do, and most importantly for them to understand what it is that we do, and what we do not do. We do not operate detention centers, we do not operate mini jails, we do not separate kids from their parents -- we do the opposite," said Sanchez.
KVUE reported in June that there were 1,469 boys between the ages of 10 and 17 housed at the shelter in Brownsville, according to CEO Juan Sanchez. The average stay for each child is about 49 days.
Several groups -- including Latino Healthcare Forum, Texas American Federation of Teachers, Austin Sanctuary Network and Educators in Solidarity -- met at Southwest Key headquarters located in East Austin starting at 12:30 p.m. to call on the City of Austin and Travis County to "take the moral high ground and immediately end all contracts with Southwest Key," according to a statement from Indivisible Austin.
"Southwest Key is building its business on the racist and immoral policies that have resulted in the creation of 'tender-age' baby prisons and child detention camps throughout the U.S.," the statement read. "Southwest Key is the biggest beneficiary of the Trump administration’s discriminatory zero-tolerance policy that criminalizes legal and legitimate asylum seekers."