Everyone has no doubt read/seen/heard stories now about Casa Padre, the Brownsville, Texas Walmart-turned-children’s-prison that currently houses nearly 1,500 juvenile immigrant boys. About a week and a half ago, Senator Jeff Merkley tried to tour Casa Padre and was turned away. (He had some things to say anyway.) Yesterday, a small group of reporters were allowed to tour the facility, including Jacob Soboroff, whose tweet thread about the prison went semi-viral late yesterday.
There is little about Casa Padre that is particularly surprising, given how the United States treats incarcerated people, children and adults, more generally. It is overcrowded; the food is bad; the facility is dramatically understaffed; kids have to do double-shift schooling. The number of children there has spiked in the past month because of the Trump regime’s dedicated ability to find new racist and inhumane policies to enact.
One of the things that’s worth noting, though, is the degree to which the human misery that America’s immigration policies inflict upon would-be immigrants present financial boons for at least some people on this side of the border:
The shelters in and near Brownsville have become big business, employing thousands of residents and bringing abandoned stores, schools and other buildings back to life in a county where the median household income is $34,578 and the percentage of those living below the federal poverty line is 29.1, far higher than the national poverty rate of 12.7 percent.
And, of course, there is enormous profit to be made by the executives of firms who oversee these detention centers, especially for the owner of nominally nonprofit Southwest Key, which oversees Casa Padre:
The unusually high number of unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the southern border in recent years has been good for Southwest Key’s business. The organization has received more than $1.1 billion to shelter unaccompanied minors since 2014, including $310 million in the current fiscal year, federal spending records show.
Business briefly slumped a year ago, when the spring surge of unaccompanied teen immigrants failed to materialize. Southwest Key laid off nearly 1,000 employees, according to media reports at the time.
But the flood of teens soon resumed, and then the Trump administration began separating families, shunting adults into jails and their children into shelters. The number of children in federal custody spiked by more than 20 percent between April and May of this year. Casa Padre doubled its population over that period, from 542 to 1006, according to a monthly census by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the agency that licenses such shelters.
As of late May, the agency permitted Casa Padre to house 1,186 people. By the beginning of this week, it had granted the shelter permission to house 1,483. On Tuesday, the agency agreed to allow up to 1,514, a spokesman said.
So, just one year after the mass layoff, Southwest Key is racing to keep up with a new boom. The organization has hired about 700 employees in the past two weeks, and is aiming to hire another 150 as soon as possible, Sanchez said. More than 200 jobs are available at Casa Padre alone, according to Southwest Key’s website.
Sanchez, a native of Brownsville, founded Southwest Key in 1987 with a focus on juvenile justice programs. In the late 1990s, he said, the organization won a federal contract to operate a shelter at the border for immigrants, many fleeing El Salvador.
Now, two decades later, Southwest Key operates 26 shelters for immigrant youth in Texas, Arizona and California. The growth has been accompanied by increased compensation for executives.
By 2015, Sanchez’s compensation was $786,222, according to forms filed with the IRS. The following year, his Southwest Key compensation nearly doubled to $1.48 million, according to IRS forms filed by a related organization, an Austin charter school Sanchez founded.
Sanchez said the change reflected a retirement contribution rather than a salary increase — recognition of previous years spent working for a low salary and no benefits.
“We had nothing,” he said of the early years at Southwest Key. “No benefits, no 401(k), no insurance. We just go out there keeping kids out of prisons and jails.”
His wife, Jennifer Sanchez, is a vice president of the organization. Her compensation totaled $280,819 in 2015, IRS filings show.
So the owner of Southwest Key is taking in more than $1.7 million in combined household annual compensation, with a large portion of that likely coming from government contracts. (The Southwest Key’s financials webpage is conveniently down at the moment, making it hard to fully discern their financial structure.)
This sort of profiteering off of human misery is in some ways a microcosm of the relationship between capitalism and racialized mass incarceration in America more generally. It’s important to note that the vast majority of American prisons are NOT privately run (the belief that privatization is central to the story of mass incarceration is entrenched, but misplaced). Nevertheless, plenty of people make plenty of money off of human caging. Hundreds of thousands of prison guards make their living off of it (which frequently leads them to oppose any/all positive criminal justice reform) and numerous companies make tremendous profits through the various cottage industries that are attached to America’s prison boom. And, of course, those companies that do participate in the private prison industry make money hand over fist.
At the end of the day, the most important stories about Casa Padre and affiliated immigrant prisons/”detention centers” are their human and moral costs. But the very tangible ways that many Americans materially benefit — sometimes very, very lucratively — from this human misery is important to reckon with, too.