Amidst the outrage over the separation of child immigrants from their refugee parents at the southern border lies another issue that is equally disturbing: the use of private companies to operate and maintain detention facilities housing thousands of vulnerable children and the screening processes these companies use to hire the supervisory personnel at the internment camps.
Texas Monthly just published an alarming account of a man hired as a case manager in Brownsville, Texas at the Southwest Key Casa Padre shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children.
The caseworker, Ernesto Padron, who worked in a facility that currently houses nearly 1,500 boys, ages ten through seventeen, was a former Border Patrol agent who was forced to resign in 2010 from that agency after he was arrested on child pornography charges. As part of his job at the shelter, he had direct, and often unsupervised, access to unaccompanied immigrant minors.
His arrest on charges of possession of illicit porn featuring under-aged children became moot after a years-long court backlog led to the case being dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
A spokesperson for Southwest Key, a rare nonprofit organization operating this type of facility, told Texas Monthly that Padron was suspended immediately after the organization discovered the expired charges against him.
His suspension became permanent when Southwest Key laid him off, along with nearly a thousand other people, after the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border dropped significantly last year, a trend that reduced the number of staff needed in the nonprofit’s shelters.
Texas Monthly could not discover exactly how long Padron had been working at the shelter before his sordid past was exposed, but the fact that he was hired at all to a job in this situation calls into question the personnel screening processes at all of the private facilities now housing thousands of vulnerable boys and girls, as well as the level of care and safety that they are receiving.
“In our hiring, extensive background checks are conducted on applicants; however, because Mr. Padron was not convicted of the charges you referenced (or any other disqualifying criminal charges), he was cleared for employment,” Southwest Key spokesperson Lizzie Chen wrote in an emailed statement to Texas Monthly. “When we became aware of Mr. Padron’s situation, he was immediately suspended, and he never worked at our shelter again.”
The inability of Southwest Key to discover Padron’s sordid history in their supposedly “extensive background check” is puzzling given that, according to Texas Monthly:
“The charges against him have been and remain publicly available by searching for his name on Cameron County’s online criminal court records database. His child pornography arrest was also heavily covered by local news outlets, and those reports show up near the top of a simple Google search of Padron’s name.”
With the large increase in the number of detained children isolated from their families in the last few months under the Trump administration, the hiring practices of the government contractors needs to come under closer scrutiny.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, mandates that “care provider facilities must complete background investigations on all staff, contractors, and volunteers prior to hire to ensure the candidate is suitable for employment to work with minors in a residential setting.”
“Care provider facilities are prohibited from hiring or utilizing the services of any applicant, contractor, or volunteer who has engaged in, attempted to engage in, or has been civilly or administratively adjudicated to have engaged in sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or any type of inappropriate sexual behavior,” the policy guide from the agency states.
That these crucial guidelines are not being followed shows just how haphazardly the entire Trump immigration enforcement machine has been run and just how dangerous this administration’s policies are to the well-being of innocent children.
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