HOUSTON: Mayor Okays New Southwest Key Detention Center

By Jennifer Kelly

On February 14, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he would be allowing nonprofit Southwest Key to open a detention center in East Downtown.

The decision comes as a result of Southwest Key having changed their proposed use from a long-term detention center for immigrant children aged 0-17 (which would have been the first such facility in the country) to a detention center for migrants aged 16-17.

Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo had originally vowed to fight the opening of this center because of the age range. “I do not want to be an enabler in this process. I do not want the city to participate in this process… If we don’t speak, if we don’t say no, then these types of policies will continue,” Turner said in a press conference in June of 2018.

The city temporarily denied Southwest Key a permit to open the facility, but with the changing of the proposal, and, more importantly, the public eye no longer looming over it, all city opposition has melted away. The facility is now slated to open as soon as a few minor repairs and renovations are made.

The city’s insincere opposition rode a wave of mass outrage and protest against the facility last summer, with thousands protesting and marching outside of the proposed site for the detention center. The lack of revolutionary leadership resulted in opposition to the facility petering out within a few weeks.

Each year, Southwest Key makes millions from federal grants – $626 million in 2018. Southwest Key CEO, Juan Sanchez, has given himself a salary of $1.5 million, and his wife a salary of $500 thousand. As a comparison, the CEO of Red Cross, another nonprofit lackey of US imperialism, has a salary of $500,000. The nonprofit came under scrutiny when the Trump administration implemented their family separation policy at the border.

The lease holder for the East Downtown property, David Denenburg, is also refusing to put up any meaningful opposition to the facility.

“The lease agreement expressly states that the property will be used solely to house, educate and support unaccompanied children,” a statement released by Denenburg said. “We have spoken to the tenant and demanded that no children separated from their parents be placed in this facility.”

These empty words are a weak attempt to hide that Denenburg has no problem generally with the detention of migrants and children or profiting from US Imperialism. He is a small-time developer who sits on the East Downtown Management district, helping to propel and carry out the gentrification of Houston’s East End through the continual development and expansion of “EaDo,” a small bourgeois neighborhood just east of Houston’s downtown and into Second Ward and other surrounding working-class hoods.

Following the initial week of large spontaneous protests, several revisionist organizations, headed by the Houston Socialist Movement, formed a coalition to stop the opening of the Southwest Key detention center.

This revisionist coalition has been unable to accomplish much of anything, holding monthly, identical protests of a dozen or so people quietly milling about behind police barricades outside of the facility or Denenburg’s River Oaks home, always after having received permits from the police and having police escorts.

HSM has gone as far as to thank the police officers for providing this security at one such demonstration. Because of their liberal and reformist politics, which ultimately serve US imperialism, they have been unable to effectively push back against the opening of the detention center.

In contrast to the weak opposition in Houston, Southwest Key has found itself embattled in Austin where the nonprofit’s headquarters are based. Frente de Liberación Inmigrante, an Austin-based revolutionary organization formed in June 2018, leads opposition to Southwest Key in the city.

Frente has staged protests outside of Southwest Key schools and events as well as CEO Juan Sanchez’s home. Unlike the toothless protests in Houston, these protests did not ask for police permission or escort and have led to direct conflict with Southwest Key officials.

At one protest, co-founder Salvador Cavazos confronted a picket and provoked a skirmish where he threw a protester’s phone. At another protest outside of East Austin College Prep, Sanchez himself came out to yell ineffectually at Frente and their supporters, embarrassing himself.

Frente has called for a boycott of Southwest Key, and several organizations have signed on. Through the boycott, they called on supporters to demand that the Austin city council drop funding for Southwest Key, and the council did last fall.

The masses need revolutionary leadership to fight against Southwest Key and the greater enemy of US imperialism.