Austin City Council to Drop Contract with Nonprofit that Detains Immigrant Children

By Dmitri Sans

Last week, Austin City Council voted to approve a resolution that directs the city manager to review and, if necessary, terminate its contract with any organizations participating in President Trump’s family separation policy, namely nonprofit Southwest Key. The move signals an end to the city’s long-term support for the nonprofit, having paid Southwest Key more than $600,000 over the past decade.

As soon as journalists began to uncover the implementation of the family separation policy the start of the summer, the masses immediately condemned the federal government and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the trauma inflicted on thousands of children and the suffering of their parents.

The role of Southwest Key in the family separation scheme was less known. According to a report published in June, the federal government intended to pay the nonprofit more than $458 million in fiscal year 2018 to detain immigrant children arrested by ICE.

Also in June, a new organization called Frente de Liberación Inmigrante formed in Austin,  stating in its first official post that the goal would be “directly confront[ing] the structures that are attacking us and our families in the form of detention, deportation, and militarized borders.”

For its first direct action, the group led a march on June 28th in west Austin to the house of Juan Sánchez, the CEO of Southwest Key. Protesters chanted slogans like “Hey Juan Sánchez, what do you say? How many kids did you jail today?” and carrying banners with messages like “Juan Sánchez makes MILLIONS off of child incarceration.”

Despite Sánchez not being home, protesters gave speeches to the news crews present as well as the two security guards on the steps of the house, denouncing Southwest Key’s collaboration with ICE and its active role in the terrorizing of immigrants.

Protesters occupy Sánchez’s driveway.

Since then, Frente has led other actions confronting Southwest Key’s anti-immigrant practices at the East Austin College Prep campus, a charter school operated by the nonprofit. On August 7th, Frente published a statement calling for the boycott of Southwest Key and all its businesses, including its 27 child detention centers, its charter school, Austin restaurant Cafe del Sol, local business The Blooming Florist, and other Southwest Key programs.

“The detention and deportation industrial complex is massive and widespread, but Southwest Key is right in our backyard, and we can hit them where it hurts!” the statement reads.

Organizations like Texas League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) District VII, Inmigrantes Unidos, and Educators in Solidarity signed on to the boycott as well as businesses like SOMAR ATX and The Latino Comedy Project.

Momentum for the boycott continued to build with more organizations like the Waco Immigrants Alliance signing on, culminating in the issue being raised at the Austin City Council. Last Thursday, council members voted 10-1 to approve the resolution to halt funding to Southwest Key.

“Frente de Liberación Inmigrante is pleased with the city council’s decision to cut off Southwest Key from city funds,” a Frente spokesperson said. “Southwest Key hustles anywhere it can for money – always using children as its pawns, and the city sent a message their hustle wouldn’t work with them any longer.”

“Southwest Key sees children as their payday – they get a check cut by the federal government for each child they put in their detention centers or each one they lure away from struggling public schools,” the spokesperson continued. “When Trump came calling, Southwest Key was the willing partner for his family separation policy. We will continue to hold them liable for the crimes they’ve carried out against immigrant families and children.”

Frente is calling a picket on September 15th to protest an upcoming Southwest Key event where the nonprofit will be giving away prizes to families that are able to recruit new students to attend its charter school. “The more students you recruit, the more points you can collect, which means more chances to win! BONUS: YOU CAN WIN MULTIPLE PRIZES!” stated promotional material for the event.

On the protest event page, organizers said that Frente will be holding a grito de independencia outside “for the children still torn from their parents in Southwest Key facilities.”

“It’s time for Southwest Key to pack it up out of Austin and all of our communities for their complicity in Trump’s family separation policy,” the post said.