How is life for so-called unaccompanied alien children at a federally sponsored youth shelter in El Cajon? Perhaps too sweet, in the opinion of Iowa Republican senator Charles Grassley, as expressed by him in an October 30 letter to U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell.
During her testimony at a July 14 hearing on the border shelter program, Burwell argued that "because of an influx of [unaccompanied alien children] our resources have been stretched thin and...as a result, more taxpayer dollars were needed to finance the care and custody of individuals who surged across the border in recent months."
But Grassley questioned the government's "stewardship of taxpayer dollars" already spent by Southwest Key, the Austin, Texas-based nonprofit that runs the facility here, as well as others in Texas, Arizona, and California.
"Southwest Key has been the recipient of $368 million in government grants in the past six years and over $122 million alone from the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement in 2014," the senator wrote.
"On April 23, 2014, Southwest Key proposed to charge the government a 'daily rate' of $316 to house unaccompanied alien children in a facility in El Cajon, California," according to Grassley's letter, which cited Southwest Key's description of the operation's amenities on an application for federal funds.
“We have an organic orchard of orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees, as well as an Organic garden that supplements our kitchen with a wide variety of organic vegetables throughout the year," the nonprofit said.
"We have a small petting farm with ducks, chickens, and miniature ponies. We have also established an Acuaponics system where we are cultivating over 1000 Tilapia.”
According to Grassley, "Southwest Key described the facility as, '...an architectural compliment [sic] to San Diego’s early "Spanish Colonial" history.’...
"Southwest Key also claimed that its location would allow [unaccompanied alien children] to '...enjoy the fruits of living in a large city, yet far enough where there is a suburban serenity to the facility.' Finally, Southwest Key informed HHS that the facility’s windows 'provid(e) a splendid view of the beautiful California sunset.'"
Southwest Key responded to Grassley's letter with a statement saying "the cost per child in our California facilities is higher than other locations because they are small facilities with fewer beds. As the amount of beds goes up, the cost per child goes down. Unfortunately, Southwest Key has not been able to secure a larger facility in that region in order to expand to more beds."
As for the alleged amenities, the nonprofit said, "The orchard and organic farm were pre-existing on the property when we leased it, so we have not purchased any trees or plants.
"We did pay a one-time fee of $40 to buy forty fish as stock. Since then they have reproduced at no cost to us. The cost to keep the orchard and garden is only the electricity used to run the well pump for watering. The crops they produce, however, supplement to our food supply and actually lower our expenditures there.
"The poultry on the farm also supplements our food supply. The water in the tilapia farm is constantly recycled and only requires minimal watering to compensate for evaporation and the waste from the fish is used to fertilize the organic garden….
"The animals at the farm in our El Cajon facility were all donated with the exception of one pony that was born at El Cajon. The veterinary care provided to the animals is also donated. The total cost of feed for all the animals — ponies, chickens, ducks and tilapia is a negligible part of the overall budget (approximately $60/month for feeding all animals)….
"Regarding the guitar lessons that Senator Grassley brought up in his letter to the HHS, there are currently no guitar lessons/classes at either El Cajon or Lemon Grove. The few guitars we have were donated and should an employee or a volunteer know how to play the guitar, they would be encouraged to provide lessons to the kids."
Last month the Escondido City Council voted 4-1 to reject a permit for a similar shelter to be run by Southwest Key there after mayor Sam Abed criticized the American Civil Liberties Union's involvement in the project. "It's unprecedented aggression on local governments. They should be able to make their own land-use decisions."