- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Federal agents have exposed a shocking tale of illicit relationships between a worker at a government-sponsored shelter and an illegal immigrant boy she was supposed to be taking care of — and a plot by three employees to orchestrate a jailbreak, freeing him from custody.

The teen was an Unaccompanied Alien Child, the most vulnerable of migrants who arrive at the southwest border, coming without parents. UACs are supposed to get the highest levels of protection, with immediate transfer to social workers at shelters run under grants from the federal Health Department.

It was at one of those facilities — Southwest Key’s Casa Padre in Brownsville, Texas — that the teen, identified as Jeffry Nai Gonzalez-Melendez, was staying when the three women plotted to break him out, according to court documents.

Kevin J. Morehouse, special agent for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a court affidavit that the agency discovered the plot this year when a contraband phone found in the possession of a child at the facility had nude photos of one of the staffers.

When agents questioned employee Evericka Velasquez, she let them see her phone. They discovered a chat with Karla Izaguirre in which the women plotted the boy’s escape.

Ms. Izaguirre, confronted with the evidence, admitted to the whole thing, according to the affidavit.

The three women arranged to have Mr. Gonzalez run away while he and other UACs were on a field trip away from the facility at the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum, the court documents charge. One of the women picked him up and delivered him to a bus station in town, where Ms. Izaguirre met him and began to harbor him.

“Izaguirre stated that she did help plan the escape of Gonzalez even though she knew he was illegally present in the United States. Izaguirre then states that for approximately three months she provided Gonzalez with food, clothing and shelter in her own home,” Mr. Morehouse told the court.

The complaint charges Ms. Izaguirre with harboring an illegal immigrant and with conspiracy to harbor.

She has a detention hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

Her attorney told The Washington Times that she did not want to comment yet on the case against her.

Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, called the case “a little shocking but not at all surprising.”

“When we have policies that encourage minors to come here illegally, and when the system is overwhelmed by the number of new arrivals, and when there are inflexible rules that assume every minor is an innocent young child when really most are older teenage boys, things are going to go wrong,” she said.

The Times could find no record of charges against the other two women, Ms. Velasquez and Ada Ordaz, who the court files say picked up Mr. Gonzalez when he fled from a field trip and delivered him to Ms. Izaguirre at a bus station in town.

Southwest Key said it suspended and then fired the women involved and reported the incident to authorities.

“Any mistreatment of a child is unacceptable and violates the mission, policies and procedures that guide the work of Southwest Key,” said Neil G. Nowlin, a spokesman for the company.

Unaccompanied alien children nabbed at the border are required under the law to be transferred to HHS custody within 72 hours.

The HHS’s office of refugee resettlement then places the children in contract facilities and tries to find sponsors willing to take them in.

The prosecution is a black eye for the UAC program, which has faced other allegations of sexual abuse of minors in federal custody.

From about the middle of 2015 to the end of 2016, seven substantiated cases were reported of a staff member involved in sexual contact with a UAC at government-contracted facilities. In 2017, five instances were reported.

Most abuse or sexual misconduct complaints, though, involved contact among the juveniles.

HHS runs more than 195 UAC facilities in 23 states and as of the end of February had about 3,600 UACs in its care.

The department declined to comment on the prosecution against Ms. Izaguirre but insisted it has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse or other inappropriate behavior and requires facilities to report any problems they discover.

Southwest Key runs a number of UAC facilities, and HHS lists more than $1.2 billion in federal funding that went to the company in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Mr. Nowlin, the Southwest Key spokesman, detailed the company’s policies for preventing abuse.

“In compliance with federal and state regulations, all employees are required to pass a thorough background check before joining our organization,” he said. “We review criminal histories, driving records and sex offender registries. We train and constantly reinforce the critical importance of appropriate behavior and conduct.”

Ms. Vaughan said the Trump administration has attempted to increase monitoring of UAC cases and make sure the children are treated right. She said “anti-enforcement advocates” have fought the changes.

She said the better solution would be speedy repatriation to their home countries.

Mr. Gonzalez, the UAC who ICE says was sprung from custody, has since turned 18 and, as an adult, was identified in the court documents.

Mr. Morehouse said Mr. Gonzalez is now in ICE custody, has been through immigration proceedings and has been ordered deported back to Honduras, court documents show.

The agent didn’t say how Mr. Gonzalez was apprehended but did ask a judge to keep him in the country to serve as a witness against Ms. Izaguirre.

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