Around three dozen people denounced the Trump administration's family-separation policy on Sunday evening outside of a Phoenix-area nonprofit that houses detained migrant children.
The Austin-based nonprofit, Southwest Key, runs the shelter and seven others in Arizona, according to a spokesperson.
It's unclear how many detained migrant children are inside of the unassuming green house on Myrtle Avenue in Glendale, just northwest of Phoenix, where demonstrators protested the family-separation crisis. Southwest Key has not disclosed how many of the 2,500 children separated from their families under the administration's directive are held in Arizona shelters.
Cindy Goblirsch didn't know that there were child shelters in the Phoenix until a few days ago. Fighting back tears, the 62-year-old Anthem resident said that she fears for the living conditions of the children in shelters.
"They're separating them from people who can make them feel loved and safe, under Mylar blankets on cement floors — maybe not in this facility, but they still don't have their parents," Goblirsch said. "The people who love them aren't around them."
The protests went on even though last Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order designed to repair the fallout from his administration's own policy: The order allows families to be detained together when they are apprehended after crossing the border.
Yet it remains unclear how Trump's order will play out. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Justice have interpreted the executive order in contradictory ways, and there's ongoing confusion as to whether families that have been separated will be reunited.
At the same time, Southwest Key is under new scrutiny as a principal contractor that the federal Department of Health and Human Services pays to house detained children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.
The government has paid Southwest Key $1.5 billion during the past decade. And the Trump administration plans to pay the nonprofit more than $458 million during fiscal year 2018 alone to house detained kids, according to Bloomberg.
As of May, Southwest Key has detained a new influx of children in facilities like an abandoned Walmart in Texas after immigration officials separated the kids from their parents as a result of Trump's "zero-tolerance" prosecution strategy.
In the Phoenix metro area, Southwest Key's shelters resemble ranch homes or gated schools, unlike the Walmart in Brownsville and a new, makeshift facility reportedly planned for Houston.
On Friday, Phoenix New Times reported that this shelter in Glendale was the subject of an Arizona Department of Health Services investigation in 2017 after workers forcibly restrained a child on Christmas for almost 40 minutes. Restraining a resident at a behavioral health facility is prohibited under Arizona's administrative code.
The Southwest Key shelter altered its emergency response procedures as a result of the incident and also paid a $500 fine, according to an ADHS report.
ADHS has also fined other Southwest Key shelters over recent administrative lapses. At several Southwest Key shelters in the Phoenix metro area, employees missed deadlines to reapply for ADHS licensure 60 days in advance of their license's expiration date.
And at a Southwest Key facility in Mesa, one worker did not complete a fingerprint application with the Department of Public Safety until 113 days after they were hired, violating a requirement that employees who work with at-risk groups undergo a criminal history check.
Saundra Arellano, a 51-year-old Phoenix resident, planned the protest with friends earlier this week as national outrage mounted over the family separation order. "A lot of times, it's hard to bring people together on a short notice, but people are pretty upset about this," she said.
Arellano added that demonstrators were not there to specifically protest Southwest Key as the government contractor, but rather the "horrible" family-separation strategy.
Among the demonstrators was Hiral Tipirneni, a Democratic congressional candidate in District 8 who lost to Republican Debbie Lesko in an April special election. In an interview with New Times, Tipirneni criticized the administration's family separation policy, calling it destructive and cruel.
“It’s traumatic for these children," she said. "There’s no plan on how exactly to reunite these families. And this is not who we are — these are not the values that this country represents. We can do a lot better.”
Tipirneni, who is seeking a rematch with Lesko in the November election, learned on Sunday that shelters in the Phoenix area are holding migrant children. And although she believes that the U.S. has to have secure borders, Tipirneni said that “there are rational ways to go about it.”
“Families should be kept together, period," she said. "However we address the problem, it doesn’t make any sense to be breaking up families; parents from their children.”
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Standing at the blue security gate that surrounds the Southwest Key property in Glendale, several demonstrators examined the intercom button expectantly. One woman even called the nonprofit's headquarters in Texas, arguing insistently with someone on her cellphone as she stood in the shelter's driveway.
Gerritt Osborn, 36, said that even though he's not a parent, it's clear that the family separation policy is wrong. He called for the families to be immediately reunited. In this moment, demonstrating is the right thing to do, he said.
"It's a humanitarian issue," Osborn said. "It's awful what they're doing."
This article has been updated with the number of Southwest Key child shelters in Arizona.