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Families Divided

This Texas nonprofit houses nearly half of America's undocumented children in custody

Austin-based Southwest Key Programs has been paid hundreds of millions of dollars to care for thousands of immigrant children in federal custody. Founder Juan Sanchez says about 10 percent of the children the nonprofit cares for were separated from their parents.

The nonprofit Southwest Key Programs, whose headquarters is in Austin, is housing nearly half the undocumented immigrant kids in federal custody.

Families Divided

The Trump administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to the separation of children from adults who crossed the border illegally, has fueled a national outcry. Sign up for our ongoing coverage. Send story ideas to

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As the national debate over President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy boiled into a crisis that is prompting the administration to end the controversial practice of separating children from their parents at the border, one Texas-based company is housing nearly half the undocumented immigrant kids in federal custody.

Southwest Key Programs is a nonprofit company hired by the U.S. government to house approximately 5,000 immigrant minors in Texas, Arizona and California. This year, the federal government gave the company almost $500 million to operate its shelters, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Until recently, the company, which was founded in 1987, cared for unaccompanied children who crossed the border alone. Now its founder and chief executive, Juan Sanchez, estimates that 10 percent of the kids living in Southwest Key facilities were separated from their parents, according to The Washington Post.

In an official statement posted to Twitter, Southwest Key said it does not support separating families at the border. The company posted the statement after Trump signed an executive order ending it.

“We believe keeping families together is better for the children, parents and our communities, and we remain committed to providing compassionate care and reunification,” the company tweeted.

“We are at a maximum right now, pretty close to it,” Sanchez said during an interview with KUT Austin. “We got about 230 additional beds. But we are making room for some additional beds. When we get to 6,000 we're going to be maxed out. And there's a lot of ... discussions now about where are these kids going to go.”

Sanchez made over $786,000 in 2015, according to Internal Revenue Service documents. In 2016, his compensation increased to $1.48 million, according to The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, an investigation by Reveal and The Texas Tribune found that state inspectors found 246 violations at Southwest Key’s facilities, including an employee who allegedly came to work drunk, rotten bananas and shampoo dispensers filled with hand sanitizer.

The company runs Casa Padre, the detention center located in an old Walmart in Brownsville. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, tried to enter the facility in June and was denied access. Southwest Key also operates youth justice programs and charter schools, according to its temporary corporate website.

The company is also growing. The nonprofit leased a warehouse in downtown Houston that it wants to turn into a facility for immigrant children. The facility would house “tender age” children younger than 12 years old and pregnant and nursing teenagers, but city officials are resisting it, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Disclosure: Jeff Eller, a communications adviser to Southwest Key, is a donor to and former board member of The Texas Tribune. KUT has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. The Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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