City zoning officials have denied an appeal by the Arizona-based youth-services company VisionQuest, which wants to house 60 undocumented immigrant children in North Philadelphia, throwing the company’s plans at the site into question.

A spokesperson for VisionQuest said it would appeal the ruling in Common Pleas Court.

The for-profit company, through a contract with the federal government, plans to house the Spanish-speaking boys at its Logan Plaza property, 5201 Old York Rd. The children, ages 12 to 17, are among thousands of “unaccompanied minors” who turned up alone at the southern border, fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

City officials confirmed on Monday that the Zoning Board of Adjustment had rejected VisionQuest’s contention that current regulations allow it to shelter the children there. The zoning board typically does not state its reasoning.

VisionQuest’s plan has generated controversy, particularly from local immigrant advocates, who say the “sanctuary city” of Philadelphia must not be involved in holding undocumented children within its borders. The dispute reflects the acrimonious national debate over the handling and treatment of immigrant children.

“The zoning board made the right decision, based on the laws,” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym. But apart from that, she said, “VisionQuest is a terrible provider. … Having them in our city again is not something that our city agencies want to go through, given what their past performance has been like.”

A VisionQuest operation at the same site closed in 2017 after state inspectors found that staffers had struck and choked children on multiple occasions. At least three VisionQuest employees were fired between 2011 and 2017 after hitting or physically handling children, state records show.

VisionQuest leaders say that this program will be different, and that the immigrant children will get education and health care. They say they have spent about $200,000 to create comfortable dormitory-style housing at the property. The agency operates in six states, providing housing and therapies to hundreds of juvenile offenders and other at-risk youths.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said Monday that the zoning denial marked an important step toward “stopping the depraved practice ... of treating the most vulnerable among us as less than human."

"The practice of incarcerating immigrants for simply entering the country — so many of whom are seeking asylum legally — is reprehensible,” Jordan said.

The case began when the Department of Licenses and Inspections investigated the site and issued a notice of violation. It said a new zoning permit would be required for the intended use. VisionQuest appealed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, asking that it be allowed to proceed with its plans.

The current zoning allows certain minors to be housed at the property as long as they are not under the jurisdiction of a court. VisionQuest maintains the children fall under no such jurisdiction. The city’s position is that the children are under the jurisdiction of the federal Immigration Court.

“The city of Philadelphia has once again proved that it is truly a welcoming city for its immigrant community,” the Latino advocacy group Juntos said in a statement on Monday. “We at Juntos commit to staying vigilant on this issue and will continue to fight back against this and any other form of detention in our communities.”

Members of the Logan community listen and await their turn to speak during a meeting last month on the reopening of the VisionQuest property in North Philadelphia. This time the facility will house undocumented immigrant children.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Members of the Logan community listen and await their turn to speak during a meeting last month on the reopening of the VisionQuest property in North Philadelphia. This time the facility will house undocumented immigrant children.

City Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker, who represents the area, said she was “pleased that the Zoning Board of Adjustment determined that the proposed use for the property requires a new zoning permit, as the impact of the proposal on the neighbors is unclear.”

The zoning decision comes nearly two weeks after a contentious community meeting at which many Logan residents criticized VisionQuest and its employees cheered its arrival. About 170 people filled almost every seat available for the meeting, held at the Yorkhouse apartment building.

The hearing lasted four hours, and a stenographer took down people’s remarks as they spoke in case community comments should become part of a future lawsuit.

Last month, The Inquirer reported that as the firm worked to train staff for the project, VisionQuest board president Bob Burton told a group of workers, “Stop speaking Spanish.”

Burton, who founded VisionQuest in 1973, issued a statement in which he apologized and said he was seeking to encourage a work environment that promotes open communication and understanding.