The growing number of unaccompanied children coming across the southern border in recent years has proven lucrative for a Texas nonprofit with ties to a major immigration advocacy group, and more money could be on the way.
Austin-based Southwest Key Programs has received more than $368 million in government grants over the last six years, $356 million of which went to provide food, shelter and other services for unaccompanied minors coming into the United States.
The nonprofit, which employs 2,200 people in six states, has undergone explosive growth in its budget during President Obama's time in office, according to tax filings and federal spending databases.
Southwest Key Programs went from receiving just $670,800 in federal grants in 2008 to $31 million in 2009, Obama's first year in office, according to the Office of Management and Budget's online database. So far this year, it has received $122.3 million from the Health and Human Services Department's Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Does Southwest Key Programs support keeping unaccompanied minors in the country permanently?
Before this week, the nonprofit's website appeared to support the National Council of La Raza's position that children crossing the border should not be deported back to their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador but instead should be integrated into American society permanently.
Under its website section titled "Immigrant Youth Centers," Southwest wrote: "Our programs encourage the development of personal and academic skills while facilitating permanency for these refugees," the website stated. "We honor and respect individual cultures and traditions and provide humanitarian services in a nurturing and therapeutic environment."
The word refugee has become supercharged during the border crisis over the last few months. If an immigration judge determines that a child has refugee status because they are fleeing a dangerous situation in their home country, most often these minors are allowed to remain in the United States legally.
When asked about the sentence on the website Monday, Southwest Key spokeswoman Cindy Casares distanced herself from it, saying it was written before she was hired. She also said she has told officials at the nonprofit that it needs to be changed.
"That messaging was written before I came on," she said, "and I asked the same question."
She said it raised red flags for her because "she has never one been told one way or the another" that the organization was trying to win "refugee" status for the children they are sheltering so they could remain in the country permanently.
"I can't speak to the person who wrote it," she said. "I will say I'm planning on changing it." Overnight, Southwest New Programs dropped the words "permanency" and "refugee" on the website.
That makes it the largest recipient of federal grants to care for young immigrants.
The nonprofit could get even more funding, if President Obama has his way. The president’s $3.8 billion emergency spending request to Congress included $1.8 billion for Health and Human Services to provide care for unaccompanied children, including medical attention and additional shelter capacity.
Congress is set to the reduce the bill's price tag. Both the House and Senate are working to pass much cheaper plans and still need to hash out their differences before the August recess begins at the end of this week.
Critics say the nonprofit's success at securing federal money shows that the Obama administration knew about the growing problem of unaccompanied minors for years and did not take appropriate action to address the issue.
“They had the information. The administration simply did not prepare and made a situation that was already difficult far worse by the president’s inaction and lack of leadership, ” said Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, a group that works to try to engage the Latino community in conservative causes.
A spokeswoman for Southwest Key said it was difficult for the administration to react quickly because the surge in unaccompanied children was unexpectedly strong this year.
“We saw the numbers growing over the last few years but not anything like what happened this year,” said Cindy Casares, director of communications for Southwest Key Partners.
Southwest Key Programs also has close ties to a national immigration advocacy group which has a complicated relationship with the White House. The nonprofit shares two officers with the board of directors for the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino advocacy group and the most aggressive in pushing Obama to curb deportations of illegal immigrants.
Dr. Juan Sanchez, who serves as president of Southwest Key Programs and made a salary of $338,000 in that role in 2012, was the uncompensated secretary of the board of La Raza, according to forms the organizations are required to file with the IRS. Anselmo Villereal, who serves on Southwest Key Programs' board of directors, was the uncompensated treasurer for the Council.
The Council also recognized Southwest Key as its “affiliate of the year” in 2013 for its “exemplary work in empowering the Latino community and advancing the mission of NCLR.” The award sponsor, Ford Motor Co. Fund, gave Southwest a $25,000 check in recognition of the honor.
Southwest Key’s Casares, however, said the nonprofit is only loosely affiliated with NCLR and couldn’t cite shared activities or programs between the two.
The Council has long been a strong Obama ally. Its former executive vice president, for example, is White House domestic policy adviser Cecilia Munoz. But earlier this year, the group’s President Janet Murguia lost patience with the White House approach on immigration, calling Obama the “deporter-in-chief” and arguing that the president had turned a blind eye to the damage done by deportations.
Legal experts familiar with rules governing tax-exempt organizations say there’s nothing wrong with two nonprofits having formal or informal links such as shared officers on their boards of directors or even shared employees as long as each nonprofit abides by IRS tax rules and limits on how much lobbying they can do on public policy matters.
“It’s not unusual for organizations that are loosely affiliated but are all tax-exempt,” said Jan Baran, a longtime ethics attorney at Wiley Rein. “There are thousands of organizations that have even more formal links like sharing the same offices.”
Still, the Council's critics questioned the connection.
Bob Dane, communications director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes illegal immigration and wants to limit legal immigration to 300,000 individuals a year, argued that Southwest Key’s success looks unseemly.
“There are a lot of kids falling through the cracks and they need a roof over their heads and food — to be cared for, but this group looks like it’s fattening its pockets on the public trough,” he said.
“La Raza is pushing the policies that are creating the chaos at the border this program is trying to address,” he said.
Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement operates about 100 short-term shelters for unaccompanied children immigrants throughout the United States. Recently, because of the flood of unaccompanied children across the border, the agency has opened three new temporary facilities at military bases in California, Texas and Oklahoma. Southwest runs at least one of the three facilities.
Southwest has been caught up in some of the controversies in recent weeks surrounding attempts to move child immigrants flooding into Texas to shelter facilities around the country
Earlier this week, a planning commission for the north San Diego County suburb of Escondido rejected a proposed 96-bed facility for children arrested by the Border Patrol and the group is getting an assist from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is considering legally challenging the decision.
Correction: Cecilia Munoz was executive vice president of La Raza. Dr. Juan Sanchez and Anselmo Villareal are former members of the La Raza board of directors. Their titles were incorrect in an earlier version of this story. The Washington Examiner regrets the errors.