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For agencies like VisionQuest, holding migrant children brings millions of dollars

“There are eyes and interest in turning child detention into a new business, a bigger business than it already is,” said Jasmine Rivera, a leader of the pro-immigrant Shut Down Berks Coalition.

James Smith. who'll be in charge of the program, pictured in a hallway during a tour of the VisionQuest facilities on Old York Road in the Logan neighborhood in Philadelphia. The agency is planning to house 60 immigrant children.
James Smith. who'll be in charge of the program, pictured in a hallway during a tour of the VisionQuest facilities on Old York Road in the Logan neighborhood in Philadelphia. The agency is planning to house 60 immigrant children.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Its North Philadelphia shelter closed in 2017 after staff members were found to have punched and choked children. Now, the youth-services provider VisionQuest will be paid up to $5.3 million by the federal government to house 60 undocumented immigrant boys at the same site.

Those dollars will go to the Arizona-based for-profit agency as part of a three-year agreement with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), government records show.

That’s a lot of money. But it’s only a fraction of the taxpayer dollars — more than $1.5 billion last year alone — spent to house and supervise children who have arrived alone at the nation’s southern border, the “unaccompanied minors” at the heart of what has become not only a national debate but a growth industry.

“There are eyes and interest in turning child detention into a new business, a bigger business than it already is,” said Jasmine Rivera, a veteran Philadelphia immigration activist. “This administration has been very explicit that they want to expand immigrant detention.”

In December, a record 14,000 migrant children were in government custody, falling to 12,600 this month.

Migrant youths have been held in 150 shelters and foster programs in 17 states, from New York to California, Arizona to Florida, according to an Associated Press analysis of ORR data. The agency sent some of the funds it spent on service providers in fiscal 2018 to programs in Camden, Bethlehem, and Emsworth, Pa., a tiny Ohio River town northwest of Pittsburgh.

In less than two years, the federal government has doubled the number of shelter beds for children from roughly 6,500 to about 13,000, partly driven by the Trump administration’s crackdown on border crossers.

VisionQuest, which operates in six states, plans to house a rotating population of Spanish-speaking boys, ages 12 to 17, at its Logan Plaza property on Old York Road. Most of them fled gang violence and crushing poverty in Central America.

“Our focus is the young people,” said James Smith, the VisionQuest facility director. “We’re not politicians, we’re not [concentrating on] anything other than trying to help young people.”

VisionQuest has outfitted its center with new carpeting, beds, showers, dining facilities, and even Xbox and PlayStation video games. Its leaders say they will capably provide education, medical services, and recreation, as required by law, and move quickly to place children with family members or foster-family sponsors.

The center, Smith said, is prepared to open the moment it secures a key city approval.

For now, the plans are blocked by a ruling from the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment, which upheld a Department of Licenses and Inspections finding that a new zoning permit would be required for the intended use. VisionQuest has said it will challenge that in Common Pleas Court.

In the “sanctuary city” of Philadelphia, the fight to keep VisionQuest from reopening has been joined by City Council members, union leaders, immigrant advocates, and Logan residents — bringing home the caustic debate over the treatment of migrant children.

Opponents say the city should never allow immigrant children to be confined within its borders, and particularly not by VisionQuest. The Inquirer earlier reported that at least three VisionQuest employees had been fired between 2011 and 2017 for striking or physically handling children.

“They’re unfit to provide for the needs of any child,” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym, chair of the Children and Youth Committee and a longtime advocate for immigrants. “At the end of the day, no matter what they do to it on the inside, it’s a prison.”

In the VisionQuest center

Inside 5201 Old York Rd., the bedrooms are clean and spacious, each arranged to accommodate two or three children. The dining-hall walls are painted a bright blue.

“We’ve tried to make this as homey as possible,” Smith said, leading a tour. “We’ve done as much as we can, and we’re adding enhancements as we go.”

His office and that of his top assistant are located in the heart of the facility, to provide senior oversight and direction to the staff.

Almost all the children in ORR custody come from the three Central American lands that make up the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where gangs shoot to kill, and many people live on less than $2 a day.

“Kids are kids,” said Smith, a former deputy commissioner of youth services in Texas and a former assistant secretary of residential services in Maryland. “Their circumstances may be different, but even when we were doing juvenile-justice kids, it was to get them to a state of successfulness and permanency. The mission is still the same.”

The government said the average child’s stay in a shelter is 60 days. Children in ORR custody may not attend local schools or integrate into the community, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Local residents question why the federal government has money to house immigrant children but not to help people in Logan, a mostly African American area where poverty and unemployment are endemic.

They say that when VisionQuest previously operated at the site, the youths in its care tended to run free, vandalizing the neighborhood and upsetting people.

Now VisionQuest has been hired to operate what ORR calls a “staff secure” facility. That’s defined as a more homelike setting that maintains a better staff-to-child ratio to control disruptive behavior and prevent escapes.

The children are not allowed to leave, except under adult supervision.

“As good stewards,” Smith said, “we want to make sure kids are safe. We wouldn’t be doing that if we just said, ‘Everybody can go out and do whatever they want.’ ”

Groups like Juntos, the Latino advocacy organization, don’t see the carpeting and video games as signs of the agency’s caring attention. They say VisionQuest cares about profit, not children.

“A golden cage,” Juntos tweeted, “is still a cage.”

Some are deported, some give up

The growth in the number of children in custody was believed to be spurred in part by the Trump administration’s tough enforcement toward potential sponsor families, who themselves might be undocumented. More families came forward after those policies were eased.

That doesn’t mean all children are being rapidly transferred to family settings, confirmed HIAS PA lawyer Elizabeth Yeager, the supervising attorney for the agency’s Immigrant Youth Advocacy Initiative in Philadelphia.

Some children are deported, she noted. Or they succumb to “detention fatigue” and give up, agreeing to what’s called “voluntary departure,” which generally does not carry a ban on a future return. Some children eventually may be granted asylum, a process that can take years.

Another way children leave shelters like the one VisionQuest wants to open: On their 18th birthday — a third of kids now in government custody are 17 — many will be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, handcuffed, transferred, and locked up in adult detention facilities.

“As a nation, we just should not be in the business of detaining children,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which promotes the value of immigrants. “The first phase of the crisis has been organizations and agencies, mission-driven agencies, really intending to care for children put into an awful situation by our government. …

“When the purpose moves from mission to profit in this kind of work,” Noorani said, "there’s an entirely different set of incentives.”