Arizona migrant children centres enveloped in abuse scandal

While the two accused worked at separate facilities, both centres are operated by a Texas non-profit group that has received at least $955m in federal contracts since 2015

Two youth care workers at Arizona shelters for migrant children have been charged with sexually assaulting immigrant teenagers, according to court records. They are the latest claims of abuse at government-contracted shelters that have a key role in the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration crackdown.

On Tuesday, the police in Phoenix arrested Fernando Magaz Negrete, 32, on charges of sexual abuse and child molestation after he was seen kissing and fondling a 14-year-old girl in June, the authorities said. That arrest came a day after federal prosecutors detailed their case against another youth worker, Levian D. Pacheco, 25, who is HIV-positive and is accused of groping six teenage boys and performing oral sex on two others at a detention centre from late August 2016 through July 2017.

While the men worked at separate facilities, both centres are operated by Southwest Key Programs, a Texas nonprofit that has received at least $955 million in federal contracts since 2015 to provide shelters and other services to immigrant children in federal custody. The contractor is one of the largest operators in the highly secretive, billion-dollar business of housing, transporting and watching over migrant children in federal custody on the southern border.

President Donald Trump’s policies on immigration, including the administration’s now-defunct family separation policy, have provided a financial boon to contractors like Southwest Key Programs. The contractors have also come under increased scrutiny for their treatment of immigrants, prompting a top government official on Tuesday to defend the detention centres for families as “more like a summer camp.”

But in the case against Pacheco, a federal prosecutor in Arizona offered a very different description for the juvenile migrant centre where he worked: “a prison setting.”

Workers checked on the children in their rooms at the facility, Southwest Key’s Casa Kokopelli in Mesa, Arizona, about every 15 minutes, the prosecutor told a federal judge in January.

“During those check-ins and at other times, this defendant would go in, it’s alleged, and touch these children,” Robert I. Brooks, an assistant US attorney, said in a hearing, according to court documents. The case against Pacheco, who has pleaded not guilty, was reported this week by ProPublica.

Allegations against Pacheco were first reported to Mesa Police Department officers on July 24 last year, according to federal court records. Three boys, all 17, told the police similar stories about their interactions with him.

A boy from Guatemala said that Pacheco came into his bathroom early one morning that month and groped him as he washed his hands. Another boy said that Pacheco fondled him while he was in bed at night. A third boy said Pacheco grabbed his crotch while he was cleaning his room.

Pacheco was indicted in August 2017 and the authorities arrested him later that month in Miami after he had returned on a flight from Cuba, where he was born. Pacheco was granted lawful permanent resident status in the United States after fleeing Cuba, federal authorities said.

Over the past year, the case was handed over to federal investigators in the Department of Health and Human Services, and additional allegations were uncovered. Pacheco is now accused of sexually assaulting eight boys, ages 15 to 17, according to court documents.

Six boys said they were groped over their clothing, and two others said Pacheco had performed oral sex on them. One of the boys said Pacheco also tried to engage in anal sex with him. Federal authorities told the boys that Pacheco was HIV-positive, and “a couple of the victims” decided to be tested for HIV, according to court documents.

In the January hearing, Brooks told the judge, Steven P. Logan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, that Pacheco tried to persuade one of the boys to run away with him.

“All these children are particularly vulnerable. They are children. They are minors,” Brooks said. “They are in the United States without status. They don’t know the culture. They don’t know the custom, and they don’t know their future.”

Pacheco, who was hired at the facility on May 23, 2016, did not submit his fingerprints for a background check to the state’s Department of Public Safety until September 12 of that year, according to an agency official, despite a letter sent to him asking for them. He passed the background check at the end of the month, and court records state that Pacheco did not have a criminal record before his arrest in August 2017.

In the case against Negrete, the authorities said a girl witnessed him kiss her roommate, a 14-year-old girl, at the centre, Southwest Key’s Casa Campbell in Phoenix. Another witness told the police that Negrete kissed the girl and touched her inappropriately during a different encounter.

The Phoenix police first learned of the allegations against Negrete on July 25, about a month after first lady Melania Trump visited the same migrant centre during a tour of facilities in Arizona.

He was arrested on July 31 and is being held in the Maricopa County Jail on $150,000 bond. Jail records indicate that Negrete has been assigned a public defender, but a name of a lawyer was not listed.

A spokesman for Southwest Key Programs said that Negrete had been fired and that the organisation’s workers immediately report allegations of abuse or neglect to the authorities.


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