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Former worker criticizes conditions at Arizona facility for immigrant youth


PHOENIX — A former youth worker at an Arizona facility for migrant children says he quit the job after a few months because he was being put “in situations where I would have to work against my morals.”

In the incident that was the catalyst for his decision to leave the job, Antar Davidson was asked to communicate in Portuguese with three Brazilian children who were crying and clasping each other because they were being placed in separate rooms.

“I was called over the radio to help translate to tell them that they weren’t allowed to hug,” Davidson told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Bruce St. James & Pamela Hughes on Monday.

Davidson, who is of Brazilian descent, worked as an English and vocational teacher at Estrella del Norte in Tucson.

He said the facility, which houses between 280 and 300 kids, is understaffed, and much of the staff isn’t properly qualified to handle the complexities of working with children who don’t understand their situation.

“These kids are traumatized from where they’re from — that’s why they’re leaving,” Davidson said. “They’re traumatized on their journey — we’ve all heard stories on what happens on this journey. And then they’re traumatized now at the border, and traumatized even a fourth time at the facility.”

He said many co-workers came from fields such as retail, construction and restaurants, and their main qualification was being bilingual.

“There’s a heavy burden placed on workers who are mostly making $15 an hour with no benefits,” he said. “It’s a very … disastrous combination of factors.”

Estrella del Norte is one of 26 facilities for unaccompanied immigrant children operated by Southwest Key Programs in Texas, Arizona and California.

According to Southwest Key’s website, the Texas-based nonprofit organization’s shelters take care of kids while arrangements are made to reunite them with relatives in the United States or their home country.

A Southwest Key spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times that Estrella del Norte meets state licensing requirements, including for staffing ratios and training.

“Our staff have great expertise in dealing with this population,” Cindy Casares said. “We have very high professional development standards.”

Conditions at facilities like the ones operated by Southwest Key have come under increased scrutiny since the Trump Administration implemented a zero-tolerance policy that refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution and separates children from parents in custody.

Under the policy, nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bruce St. James & Pamela Hughes

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