AUSTIN — An Austin nonprofit organization known for keeping kids on the right path is now at the center of a controversy -- and its CEO wants to set the record straight.
Southwest Key Programs, headquartered in East Austin, is under scrutiny over its shelters which house hundreds of undocumented children.
Public outcry began about two weeks ago after staff at the shelter in Brownsville denied a senator from Oregon access to the facility.
"When he showed up, he didn't even come through the front door, where everybody comes in through the gate. He just came in through the side with a group of people. People didn't know who he was," the nonprofit's CEO Dr. Juan Sanchez told KVUE. "We asked him who he was. He said he was a senator. He didn't have permission from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. We couldn't let him in."
In statement on its website, the organization said the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement "prohibits any facility from allowing visits that have not been approved by them."
There are currently 1,469 boys between the ages of 10-17 housed at the shelter in Brownsville, according to Sanchez. The average stay for each child is about 49 days.
"It's really licensed for 1,200 kids. But what the state licensing does when there's a lot of kids, they give us a variance, which is a little bit less square footage per kid, so we're able to manage more kids in there," he said.
Sanchez said the last time his organization saw this many children was in 2014. The majority of the kids housed in its shelters have come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, he said.
"Now, we see just a lot of unaccompanied minors/kids come in. And then, I think, there's another group of people with kids that are coming because they're being separated from their parents. I think that together has made it so that we have more kids now than we've ever had," Sanchez said.
Sanchez's organization is hiring hundreds of staff members to keep up with the number of children the shelters take in. Some staff members are having to work 12-hour days to make sure the children get the care they need.
"In the next couple of weeks, we will begin to have the kind of staff that we need to take care of these kids," he said.
Some people on social media have called the Brownsville shelter a jail, even demanding the shelters close altogether.
"Some people want to blame us for separating families. We don't do that. We are taking kids and taking care of them in a wonderful fashion. And we have nothing to do with policy, nothing to do with separating kids from families. We take care of the kids once they bring them to us," Sanchez said.
Micaela Eller, the committee facilitator for the newly-founded organization Families Belong Together, told KVUE the idea of children being separated from their families and then being placed into shelters is incredibly disturbing.
"I understand that [Sanchez] is trying to sort of set the record straight and saying that he's actually trying to do something to make the situation at least a little bit more bearable. But I'd like to have him standing here next to me helping me make the case for not having these facilities exist at all," Eller said.
But Sanchez said the goal of his organization's shelters is to provide a home to undocumented children while they wait to be reunified with their families.
"We're not the bad guys. We're the good guys. We are the people that are taking these kids, putting them in a shelter, providing the best service that we can for them, and reuniting them with their family. And that's what this is all about," Sanchez said.
A congressional delegation of 11 people will be visiting the Brownsville shelter on Sunday and Monday. Nineteen members will be visiting a shelter in California on Monday.