Migrant Child Detention Center Whistleblower Speaks Out Against Family Separations

A youth care worker who quit his job at a Tucson detention center for unaccompanied minors is speaking out about inadequate facilities, untrained staff and inhumane policies, after witnessing the devastation of family separations firsthand. Antar Davidson says he quit after he was forced to tell children who were separated from their mother not to hug one another. The facility is run by Southwest Key, a nonprofit that operates 27 facilities and has signed a lease to detain hundreds of separated children, including many who are a younger than 12 years old, in a “baby jail” in a former warehouse and homeless shelter in Houston. For more, we speak with Antar Davidson.


AMY GOODMAN: As outrage is mounting over the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border as part of the crackdown against immigrants and asylum seekers, the Associate Press reporting nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents since April 19th, The New York Times reporting some parents have been deported without their children and with no information about how the family will be reunited, we’re going to look now at Southwest Key, the nonprofit that operates 27 facilities in California, Arizona and Texas, including the Brownsville facility that holds 1,500 children, that Senator Merkley was previously denied entry to.

We’re going to Tucson, Arizona, to speak with a whistleblower, a youth care worker who quit the Tucson detention center for unaccompanied minors, run by the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs, which also runs the Brownsville facility and the proposed “baby jail” in Houston, 27 facilities in all. Antar Davidson quit after, he says, Southwest Key forced him to tell children who were separated from their mother and from their siblings not to hug.

Antar Davidson, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about why you quit your job last week?

ANTAR DAVIDSON: Sure, definitely. Thank you, first and foremost, Amy, for having me on the show. I just want to clarify a little bit the timeline of events. That first night, when they told me not to hug, that prompted me to seek change internally. I reached out to a regional director, who assured me that she—the next morning, she assured me that things would change, things would be different.

Four more Brazilians came. I found it extremely difficult. I tried to help, through the organization. I tried to talk to people. And despite being a Brazilian citizen and having had professional translation work, they did not allow me to help. They really were blocking me at every turn.

I then—I then requested a leave, a time off, a week off, to process what I had gone through. And prior to that, the CEO, Dr. Juan Sánchez, made his rounds and began asking for money. And after they denied my leave request, it was then that I made the—I put in my resignation as a conscientious objector. So, just to add—

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t understand what you said, Antar.

ANTAR DAVIDSON: Just adding—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You said he was asking for money?

ANTAR DAVIDSON: Yes. So, he—basically, they called mandatory meetings at our facility, three different mandatory meetings. And he initially said that they’re going—they need 500 more people. They’re going to drop the ratio from one-to-five to one-to-three for the “tender age” kids, so that refers to the direct care ratios, so that they would have more staff to take care of those younger kids. Five hundred kids—500 new employees, he said we needed.

He told then a sob story about a minor who had come into a facility with very thick acne and how he felt so bad. Despite making a million dollars-plus, between him and his wife, in federal tax dollars, he said that he felt so bad that he couldn’t do anything for this child with acne, and then he proceeded to basically present this employee giving program, where employees and staff were urged to give $10 of every paycheck or a one-time contribution of $240. He then had a second speaker kind of reinforce the policy, while passing around papers for people to sign away their checks. And so, yeah, I just definitely want to clarify that despite, of course, the acute problems of the “zero tolerance” policy, but also we shouldn’t let this CEO off the hook, who’s been making a million dollars-plus for the past five years, off the detention of children, of vulnerable immigrant children.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Antar, can you talk about this moment—you talked about speaking Portuguese. You’re Brazilian. Talk about the moment where you were with these children, that so disturbed you. Describe the scene.

ANTAR DAVIDSON: Well, it was pretty much a day of being shown a very uncompassionate organization claiming to be a humanitarian nonprofit. The children were separated from their mother. And the next day, at 2:00 in the morning, they left—I believe it was a facility in Texas. They arrived at the Tucson facility at 9:30 in the morning, having not had slept the entire night. They were showered, fed. They went through the intake process. My shift started at 1:30. So, I eventually was able to start talking to them.

Initially, he understood, because no one spoke Portuguese, and there’s a phone translation service, but it does not work very well—the oldest brother, as soon as I started speaking Portuguese, burst out crying. And he explained to me that he thought that his mom had disappeared. In Brazil, when the government tells you that someone has disappeared, it has a very different connotation than it does here, that essentially means that they are dead. So I had to affirm to him first that his mom was not in fact dead, and then basically proceed to try to explain to him, with no clear answers, kind of where his mom was, what kind of facility. We add no idea. The case managers had no idea.

So, then, after that, I was told to supervise them in a classroom. It was a brother, who was 16, his sister, who was 10, and their younger brother, who was 8, along with a 5-year-old Guatemalan girl who came with them from Texas and had made friends with the sister. They had begun asking me—this was about 4:00 in the afternoon. They had begun asking me to sleep in a bed. They were very tired. They hadn’t slept the whole night. They had just been separated from their mom. And I requested—I requested from the management if I could get beds for them so that they could sleep. They told me, “Negative,” didn’t even really give me a reason. And essentially, I was forced to offer to sweep the floor to make a space for them to sleep on the floor, to which I felt extremely disgusted. And that was only the beginning. So, after having asked them to sleep on the floor and sweeping the floor, I went on to teach my capoeira class, which I have been—I had been doing at Southwest Key.

And then, later on, in the evening, it was not until 8:00 that the kids were assigned rooms. In Spanish and English, they were trying to explain to the kids that they would all then be separated, the brother, both—all three of the siblings in different rooms. So, they responded to this by basically clinging to each other and crying. So then I was called on the radio, and I was told over the radio, “Antar, come over here. You need to tell them that they cannot hug. They can’t hug.” So, I said, “I don’t know that I’m going to do that, but I’m on my way.” So I arrived to the scene, and the three siblings were clutching each other for dear life, tears streaming down their face. I approached the oldest brother, and I say to him in Portuguese, “Bro, you’ve got to be strong.” And he turns to me with tears streaming down his face, and he says, “How? How can I be strong? Look at my brother. Look at my sister. They’re trying to separate us again.” And I didn’t know—I just put my head down. I did not know what to respond to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Antar, how old are these children?

ANTAR DAVIDSON: And at that moment, a shift leader—yes?

AMY GOODMAN: How old are these children?

ANTAR DAVIDSON: These kids, the oldest brother was—the oldest brother was 16. The sister was 10. And the younger brother was 8.

So, at that moment, the shift leader ran up to me and very aggressively told me, ”¡Diles que no pueden abrazar!” “Tell them that they can’t hug!” Now, this is also in front of other children, other employees, who are watching this. And so she screams at me to tell them not to hug, that they’re not allowed to hug. That’s the rule at Southwest Key.

And meanwhile, I’m looking at these kids. It’s the two little—the two little siblings just, you know, thinking they’re going to be ripped now from their brother’s arms, and the brother crying because he can’t do anything, necessarily. And I told her, at that point, when she told me to do that—I told her, “I’m sorry, but as a human being, that’s not something that I can do. You’re welcome to do it yourself,” to which she replied, first, that she would report me to the supervisor, and then she went directly to them and said, ”no puedes abrazar,” “You’re not allowed to hug.” And he looks at me, with tears streaming down his face, in utter disbelief that that would happen.

It was at that moment that I realized that if I were to continue with Southwest Key, at least here in this facility, that I’d be told to do things that were against what I’m now seeing from the response of the world is against the code of all humans’ morality. I tried to make internal change. I contacted a regional director. I noticed that it wasn’t going anywhere, after three or four days. I requested my time off, stating that I needed to processes these very impactful and traumatizing events. I was denied, after two days. And at that point was when I handed in my resignation as a conscientious objector to the route and the direction the organization was taking.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a statement, posted on YouTube, by the state senator you work for, Antar, Arizona state Representative Pamela Powers Hannley.

REP. PAMELA POWERS HANNLEY: I am the ranking member on the Health Committee. On this committee, we hear child safety bills all the time. I believe that legislators should be allowed into the facility in Tucson to see the children. At least 300 are being detained in Tucson.

AMY GOODMAN: Antar Davidson, you’re field director for Arizona state Representative Pamela Powers Hannley. She has not been allowed to tour the facility where you worked, even though she’s the ranking Democrat on the Arizona state Health Committee?

ANTAR DAVIDSON: Yep. And that precisely illustrates the main problem with these facilities. Despite being paid, very highly paid, by American tax dollars, they remain entirely clandestine. I also want to just take this opportunity to really give a very strong thank you to Senator Merkley. When I heard what happened to him, I felt extremely empowered, and that really led to me deciding to stand up. The main problem—again, the main problem with these detention centers is their lack of transparency, which allows them to basically turn it into a prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Antar Davidson, I want to get your reaction to Southwest Key spokesperson Cindy Casares, who responded to concerns about whether the nonprofit is prepared to house children who have been separated from their parents at the border and are coping with trauma. Quote, she said, “Our staff have great expertise in dealing with this population. We have very high professional development standards. We cannot operate if we do not have the legally mandated number of staff required. … For the last 20 years we hire[d] staff that have a child care or social work background to be prepared to support the developmental and emotional needs of all children who arrive to our facility,” she said. Antar Davidson, you worked at the facility. Is that your assessment?

ANTAR DAVIDSON: At my—at our facility, not the case. I can personally—I was personally asked by a shift supervisor if I could work six days a week for the next foreseeable future. We were asked, every single day, “Can 10 people stay overtime? Can five people stay?” Most of the people at that—we had one week of training. Most of the employees there were formerly working in restaurants, formerly working in—you know, construction workers. And I think one of the main things, as much as this is about the children, this is a labor issue. Southwest Key, to great profit for their board and the CEO, has mostly opened their shelters in low-income Latino communities, where workers are basically more willing to take, you know, basically, $15 an hour, which is what we take, and no benefits, and just basically not speak out, not unionize. The main point is, this is a federal responsibility, and people who undertake federal responsibilities should receive federal-level support. So, I’m sure that perhaps in other facilities it’s different, but, unfortunately, in Tucson, that was not the case. And I believe, according to other articles and things that are coming out, that is not the case, what they’re saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Antar Davidson, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions made his announcement, it’s quite stunning what has taken place. President Trump says this isn’t his fault, it’s the Democrats’ fault. But the attorney general explicitly made this announcement of zero tolerance. I mean, the chief of staff, Kelly, who used to be head of Department of Homeland Security, he said this, as well as other top aides of Trump. But Trump is saying it is not his responsibility. There has been an increased flow of people, children, into these facilities. Was Southwest Key alerted to this, that this was going to happen?

ANTAR DAVIDSON: I can’t speak to that. I wasn’t necessarily in the upper management. What I can say is, I would be more than—I, personally, having had my experience, would be more than happy to speak to President Trump or Attorney General Jeff Sessions in regards to how these policies have had effect on the ground level. Again, I would like to point out that this is a—this is, basically, a bad program that was broken by a horrible idea, a horrible new plan. So there has been a very great effect by the “zero tolerance” policy; however, prior to this, we’re not talking about an organization that was good. We’re talking about an organization that, for the past five years, has made millions of dollars in basically the detention of youth.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to the same—the nonprofit you work for, Southwest Key, opening what they’re calling a “baby jail” in Houston? The mayor was protesting. The former police chief was protesting yesterday in the pouring rain. The lease of a former homeless shelter in Houston by the nonprofit you work for, Southwest Key, to use this jail—


AMY GOODMAN: —separating children at a tender age of 10 or below, 10 or younger.

ANTAR DAVIDSON: Follow the money. Yeah, follow the money. There’s going to be—I promise you, there will be millions made, in various people’s hands. And I think that’s what’s perhaps most insidious about this. This is an organization that presents itself as doing a humanitarian deed and this and that. This is a federal-level responsibility that they’re taking on, at great cost. And you need to do it right. It’s not something that you should laud yourself, especially if you’re making a lot of money. Again, follow the money. There’s a lot of money being made off of this situation.

And it’s important that we hold all those people accountable and, basically, as a nation, show we’re—we need to integrate people. We need to provide quality mental health services, particularly because these children—these children are being reunified and placed into public schools. If we turn these facilities into prisons, if we don’t provide the proper education and preparation for them, upon reunification, we’re basically creating a prison-to-public-school pipeline. And that will be detrimental to everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: Antar Davidson, I thank you for being with us. Antar Davidson is a whistleblower who quit his job last week as a youth care worker at the Estrella del Norte—that’s North Star—facility for unaccompanied minors and separated children, this one in Tucson, Arizona, the facility run by the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs. That’s the company that also runs the 1,500-child facility in Texas. Davidson is also field director for Arizona state Representative Pamela Powers Hannley.