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  • Stephanie Koithan

Will Houston Jail Children on Emancipation Avenue?

Some call Minute Maid Park the “Juice Box.” Home of the World Champion Houston Astros, its nickname conjures up wholesome images of families spending a Sunday afternoon enjoying America’s Pastime. It’s easy to imagine countless treasured childhood memories generated there, floating out on the notes of the park’s Hammond B3 organ. Nearby, a different kind of childhood memory could soon be similarly mass-produced: one of childhood trauma. On Emancipation Avenue, a half mile away from the Juice Box, plans are in motion to open a jail for immigrant children.

Minute Maid and “Merit-Based” MigrationThe proximity between Minute Maid Park and Southwest Key’s proposed detention facility at 419 Emancipation Avenue represents the duality of the modern immigrant story. Over 25% of today’s major league baseball players are foreign-born. Houston’s favorite son, Jose Altuve, was born in Venezuela. Like many MLB players, Altuve earns millions of dollars per year. His rise to baseball superstardom has been covered using words often ascribed to the classic immigrant story: “grit,” “determination,” “scrappiness.” Such flattering words aren’t often used to describe the people likely to inhabit 419 Emancipation Avenue, should the jail become operational. However, it would seem to take a great deal of grit to cross thousands of miles of desert, escaping violence and poverty, only to find yourself indefinitely caged at the finish line. A block—and yet a world—apart. If only these kids had been born to hit 24 home runs per season. Altuve gets his juice box. The rest get a cage. How many Texans love Altuve and Trump’s border wall rhetoric in equal measure? How many will believe that everything is in its right place, with Altuve in the Park and an 8-year-old Honduran boy in a nearby cage? Can that boy hear the organ? Can he hear the crowd chanting “M-V-P”? While Altuve shook the president’s hand at the White House after H-Town’s historic World Series win, the Administration was preparing to enact its Zero Tolerance Policy. Children were soon to be separated from their families in centers like the one near Minute Maid Park. The Administration’s underlying plan was to deter immigration through the promise of terror and trauma. The Trump administration’s merit-based approach to immigration is not Altuve’s fault. He is merely benefiting from it. Altuve joins the ranks of Melania Trump and her parents—immigrants who are an exception to our intolerance. If there’s any kind of a lesson to be gleaned from these divergent immigrant narratives, it is extremely bleak. To put it plainly, the U.S. government only wants you if you’re superhuman or white.

About the FacilitySouthwest Key intends to shelter up to 240 children at 419 Emancipation Avenue. The property is being leased to Southwest Key by 419 Hope Partners, who purchased the warehouse in 2016 with the aim of opening up a homeless shelter. The space also briefly housed people during Hurricane Harvey. The owner of 419 Hope Partners, David Denenburg, claims that no children separated from their parents will be housed on premises—that the facility will only house those who crossed the border as unaccompanied minors. However, given the fact that the administration classifies families as “reunified” even if they are detained separately in the same facility, it’s hard to know whether this would just be another case of deceptive semantics. Furthermore, the center will still enable and incentivize family imprisonment. In a recent statement, The Dominican Sisters of Houston condemned plans to open the facility, stating that it’s “only necessary because of recent extreme changes in our nation’s immigration policies.” The Sisters also anticipate that families, including children, will be locked up at 419 Emancipation Avenue indefinitely. “This is a moral outrage.” The advocacy community—and most of the nation—has shared the sentiment of the Sisters. Dozens of groups have held marches and demonstrations in front of the center, some with local area officeholders (and some without). The Free Los Niños Coalition has held multiple demonstrations outside of wealthy real estate developer Denenburg’s home, demanding that Denenburg cancel the lease contract with Southwest Key. With plans to open the facility still going forward, Free Los Niños has also taken up a frequent protest presence outside of 419 Emancipation Avenue as crowds walk by on their way to Astros games.

About Southwest Key, the “Nonprofit” Baby JailersSouthwest Key Inc. is a nonprofit that runs about 26 facilities across Texas, Arizona and California—including the proposed detention facility at 419 Emancipation Avenue. Southwest Key is also the nonprofit behind the Casa Padre Detention Center, the former Wal-Mart housing unaccompanied minors in Brownsville, TX that received national media attention in June. They later received additional coverage for hiring a case manager who was previously arrested for child pornography. Southwest Keys other facilities haven’t fared much better with the media. SWK facilities have received coverage for rampant sexual abuse, regulatory violations, and numerous other atrocities. Jailing children is big business and since Trump took office, business has been booming. SWK has received $1.5 billion from the U.S. government over the past 10 years. This year alone, Southwest Key will receive nearly half a billion dollars from the federal government. That exorbitant amount is nearly half the money the U.S. government has allocated for incarcerating immigrant children. Southwest Key is also housing about half of the 4,204 immigrant children staying at facilities throughout Texas. In 2016, Southwest Key CEO Juan Sanchez doubled his salary to $1.5 million per year. To put it in perspective, Gail J. McGovern, the CEO of the American Red Cross, makes less than half Sanchez’s salary even though SWK’s budget is 1/10 the size of the Red Cross. Sanchez is swimming in cash because it costs tax payers hundreds of dollars per night for every child jailed. Southwest Key is also affiliated with a network of charter schools. Sanchez is hoping to work out a deal that enables his charter school network to educate the children he’s jailing. This deal would yield a two-fold profit for Sanchez, since he profits off of both entities. If this deal goes through, the school-to-prison pipeline will be the shortest it’s ever been, with school and prison under the same roof. Activists have repeatedly protested outside of Sanchez’s Austin home chanting “Hey Juan Sanchez, what do you say? How many kids did you jail today?” Houston activists have pressured the City of Houston to block further permitting and shut the center down. Houston activists also protested at a recent Southwest Key job fair, hosted by ManPower Group. After activists let applicants know what the organization is doing, several applicants walked away.

Mayor Turner’s Response to the Proposed Baby JailSo far, Mayor Turner has been caught in a precarious position between legality and morality. In his original press conference, he said that he believed Southwest Key are “good people” but that he was “morally opposed” to opening the detention center. It remains to be seen, however, what will happen when the mayor has to thwart something that is federally funded and federally mandated.

But this issue unlike all others in government and politics is different because it involves our children. There comes a time when we must say this is wrong. We must not sanitize ourselves into thinking that carrying out the policy in Houston is acceptable. #KeepFamiliesTogether — Sylvester Turner (@SylvesterTurner) June 19, 2018 Community members were quick to respond to Turner’s first press conference, with some applauding and others calling for the mayor to go further. After Trump’s executive order ending previous family detention, the Mayor’s office reiterated opposition.

Where We Stand NowA lawyer representing Southwest Key told Senator Sylvia Garcia, Rep. Carol Alvarado and Council Member Robert Gallegos that they are ready to open the facility but Mayor Sylvester Turner disagrees. The City of Houston is requiring SWK to obtain several permits and meet several regulatory requirements before it can open. It needs a fire code permit. It also has to update its building layout in order to meet the Fire Marshall’s regulations (fire evacuation works differently when detaining humans). There have been two state inspections but, so far, no license from the state of Texas. SWK currently has a local license to operate but only as a shelter. The permit the facility needs, according to Turner, is coded by local ordinances as a detention center permit. Southwest Key has never before applied for any permit designating one of their facilities as a detention center. The future of the fight remains uncertain.

What You Can Do:Tell your elected officials to say NO to Southwest Key. Get them on record. -Call city council and the mayor's office. -Call state house and senate reps and demand they develop legislation for upcoming legislative session. -Call Harris County Commissioners Court and the County Judge's office. -Keep an eye on groups that are united in keeping families together, especially in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Start with the City of Houston numbers listed below. You can also tweet to them, or email their office to set up a meeting. Mayor’s Office (713) 697-9221Twitter: @sylvesterturnerPress Secretary: @iammarybentonDeputy Press Secretary: @tmakriveraDistrict A Councilmember Brenda StardigPhone: 832.393.3010FAX; 832.393.3302E-Mail: districta@houstontx.govTwitter: @brendastardigDistrict B Councilmember Jerry DavisPhone: 832.393.3009FAX; 832.393.3291E-Mail: districtb@houstontx.govTwitter: @davisdistrictbDistrict C Councilmember and Mayor Pro-Tem Ellen CohenPhone: 832.393.3004E-Mail: districtc@houstontx.govTwitter: @ellencohenDistrict D Councilmember Dwight BoykinsPhone: 832.393.3001FAX; 832.393.3201E-Mail: districtd@houstontx.govTwitter: @dwightboykinsDistrict E Councilmember Dave MartinPhone: 832.393.3008FAX: 832.393.3279 E-Mail: districte@houstontx.govTwitter: @cmdavemartinDistrict F Councilmember Steve LePhone: 832.393.3002E-Mail: districtf@houstontx.govTwitter: @SteveLe HTXDistrict G Councilmember Greg TravisPhone: 832.393.3007FAX; 832.395.9571E-Mail: districtg@houstontx.govTwitter: @travisdistrictgDistrict H Councilmember Karla CisnerosPhone: 832.393.3003E-Mail: districth@houstontx.govTwitter: @karla4houstonDistrict I Councilmember Robert GallegosPhone: 832.393.3011E-Mail: districti@houstontx.govTwitter: @robertgallegosiDistrict J Councilmember Mike LasterPhone: 832.393.3015FAX; 832.395.9423E-Mail: districtj@houstontx.govTwitter: @_mikelasterDistrict K Councilmember Martha Castex-TatumPhone: 832.393.3016FAX: 832.395.9410E-Mail: districtk@houstontx.govTwitter: @marthacastextAt-Large 1 Councilmember Mike KnoxPhone: 832.393.3014FAX: 832.395.9472 E-Mail: atlarge1@houstontx.govTwitter: @mikeknox2015At-Large 2 Councilmember David RobinsonPhone: 832.393.3013FAX; 832.395.9455 E-Mail: atlarge2@houstontx.govTwitter: @dwr4houAt-Large 3 Councilmember Michael KuboshPhone: 832.393.3005FAX; 832.393.3251 E-Mail: atlarge3@houstontx.govTwitter: @kuboshmichael (Note: this account is protected). At-Large 4 Councilmember Amanda EdwardsPhone: 832.393.3012FAX; 832.393.3327 E-Mail: atlarge4@houstontx.govTwitter: @amanda4houstonAt-Large 5 Councilmember Jack ChristiePhone: 832.393.3017FAX; 832.395.9426 E-Mail: atlarge5@houstontx.govTwitter: @drjackchristieYou can also sign up to speak for Tuesday afternoon Public Session by calling the City Secretary's office at 832.393.1100, sending an email to or coming by the office on the public level of the City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby, Houston 77002 by 1:30 p.m. that Tuesday. #Engage #Educate #Resist

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