TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - A shelter in the shadows of downtown Tucson has come under scrutiny as it attempts to adapt to the Trump Administrations 'zero tolerance' policy.
You won't see any large billboards or signs advertising the facility at a converted college apartment complex, but a couple hundred migr ant children are housed at Estrella del Norte on Oracle Road,north of Speedway Boulevard.
One former staff member, Antar Davidson, noticed a change when the national landscape shifted.
Davidson has been in a frenzy recently, fielding calls from media outlets all over the world. Eager to openly tell his story about a highly guarded place - the youth migr ant shelter where he started working in February 2018.
"I understood that this was a dynamic organization that was basically providing these kids the necessary preparation to be unified into public schools, that I would be able to do my program. That was the initial idea," he said, talking about how he was brought in to teach Capoeira, a form of Afro-Brazilian martial arts combining dance, acrobatics, and music. "However, the longer I went there, the more I realized that it was mostly just a private prison, as opposed to something else."
It's a harsh accusation against a nonprofit designed to provide an alternative to incarceration. The parent program, Southwest Key,operates shelters like the site in Tucson in a few southern states.
In Brownsville, Texas, a converted Walmart Supercenter has become the largest licensed migr ant children's shelter in the country. It's a warehouse, operated by Southwest Key, for nearly 1,500 boys aged 10 to 17 who were caught illegally crossing the border, according to a New York Times report.
"The teeming, 250,000-square-foot facility is a model of border life in Trump-era America, part of a growing industry of detention centers and shelters as federal authorities scramble to comply with the president's order to end 'catch and release' of migr ants illegally entering the country. Now that children are often being separated from their parents, this facility has had to obtain a waiver from the state to expand its capacity," the report stated.
As much of the nation becomes more critical of the conditions, including both Republican and Democratic legislators, the Estrella del Norte facility is under the microscope, maybe now more than ever, with migr ant children living separate from their families.
"I just noticed that it was becoming more and more strict. The kids were becoming less compliant and acting out more. I noticed this very direct shift," Davidson told Tucson News Now.
But while the facility in Texas was briefly opened to the media to get a closer look at the conditions, closer to home, it's unknown what exactly is going on inside the shelter on Oracle Road.
On short notice, without clearance, security personnel would not let our Tucson News Now crew and camera inside.
Calls and emails to the Estrella del Norte administration had not been returned by the published time of this story. Media requests were directed to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services,but we received no response.
On its website, Southwest Key explains its budget of $150 million comes nearly all from gr ants and government contracts. It states that other than shelter, they provide food, medical care, clothing, and educational support for the minors placed in their care.
The 300-bed shelter in Tucson is designed for short-term reunification. Programs involving sponsors would place unaccompanied immigr ant children in the care of foster homes and into local schools,Davidson explained.
But as Davidson said, as he held a bracelet gift from the boy, one child was housed much longer than expected - for about 10 months. He said the shelter, similar to many like it around the United States, is not equipped for long-term care.
Lately, he's watched the shelter transform, as a reported 2,000 children nationwide were plucked from their parents.
"Kids that had left by themselves knew that they were being reunified, knew what the process would entail, and for that reason were much more compliant regularly. Whereas after, there were more younger kids, kids who did not know what was happening, they were with their mother one second, with their father one second, and then they were by themselves the other. No one knew where their parents were. So it was a very different population that has unfolded over the last six weeks," he said.
For Davidson, the Trump Administration's 'zero tolerance' policy is pushing the public opinion of the United States further in the wrong direction, and the latest action is not helping the ultimate reformed immigration solution.
"We're traumatizing kids and essentially giving them reason to dislike the United States and encouraging them to join these gangs, not just for financial reasons now, but for ideological reasons,as well, based on their treatment at the hands of the United States. So we're basically creating more enemies," he said. "It's too easy to blame this on President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This is not a good policy. But this is a bad policy, that was placed on a bad policy, that was placed on a bad policy, that was placed on a bad policy."