As the country processes the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies dividing immigrant families at the border, Oregonians have turned their attention to Morrison Child and Family Services (MCFS), the only organization in the state that works with the federal government to detain undocumented immigrant kids. In past weeks, MCFS has shown members of the press a friendly, low-security facility that can house up to 70 immigrant children—complete with an entertainment center, gym, and classrooms. But reporters were not given tours of MCFS's other, higher-security shelter, called Paso Staff Secure, which some former employees have described as a glorified juvenile detention center. The two facilities provide a glimpse into Portland’s role in the national debate around children and families crossing the border.
Paso Staff Secure, or “Paso,” houses boys aged 13 through 17 who are required by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to have extra security, according to MCFS CEO Drew Henrie-McWilliams. ORR recieves the immigrant kids through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and contracts with MCFS to house them. According to Henrie-McWilliams, those housed at Paso have either been victims of trafficking, been forced to smuggle drugs, or have a history of fighting or breaking shelter rules.
MCFS doesn’t only work with immigrant kids. The nonprofit also provides counseling, day treatment, and foster care for Portland-area families. The nonprofit began housing immigrant children in 2009 at ORR’s request, after incoming president Barack Obama temporarily stopped placing immigrant children in adult detention centers. In 2016, nearly 66 percent of the nonprofit’s $26.7 million budget came from government grants. Henrie-McWilliams can’t say what portion of that money comes from ORR, but notes that money can only be used for ORR programs. In a press statement sent on June 21, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury clarified that none of the county’s contracts “fund or touch” MCFS’ federal programs for immigrant children.
The Mercury asked to tour the MCFS facilities, but ORR wouldn't allow it on short notice. Previous press tours were given by MCFS staff without ORR permission. Senator Jeff Merkley was also turned away from touring MCFS facilities last week, despite giving a week’s notice. “It is clear that [Donald Trump’s] ORR is doing all it can to block congressional oversight of their treatment of refugee children,” he tweeted in response.
Boys at Paso come from a variety of backgrounds, according to former MCFS youth counsellor Emma Sohriakoff. Some arrived at the border alone, she says, but others came with an adult family member from whom they were separated. Others grew up in the US but were sent to the facility after misbehaving in school or committing a crime, thus causing their undocumented status to be discovered.
Paso is “like a smaller version of a detention center that has paint on the walls to make it feel warmer,” says one former staffer, who asked to remain anonymous. The doors are locked throughout, and security cameras monitor most areas. Henrie-McWilliams says those measures are for safety. “It’s expected that we know where the kids are all the time,” he says.
But that’s not the only issue former staff found concerning. “When the children mentioned thoughts of suicide, or feelings of missing home, they were not allowed to go outside for weeks,” says Marcela Cartagena, a former youth care worker at Paso.
Cartagena says several children escaped Paso by climbing over the fence a few years ago, prompting ORR to suspend all operations there. Henrie-McWilliams says that the shutdown lasted for 30 days, and that kids were forced to stay inside for about a week after it reopened.
According to both a former staffer and Henrie-McWilliams, boys have been physically assaulted at the facility by other detained kids.
Sohriakoff worries that staff were used to diminish the kids’ hopes of leaving the facility. “Staff were encouraged... to gather information on the youth that could be used against them,” she says. “I felt that this was an inappropriate use of my role as his mental health therapist.”
Henrie-McWilliams says any information about the children goes only to ORR, not ICE. Asked why MCFS continues to work with ORR, Henrie-McWilliams says, “I only want our staff to help kids be treated well while they’re with us and get them to a family or a sponsor. If at any point we can’t make that happen... I wouldn’t want to keep doing it.”
He says the organization wants to help the children “find a stable way of staying in this country.”
Former MCFS staff aren’t confident the Paso program does that. “I learned Spanish as a second language, hoping to serve immigrants in my country,” Sohriakoff says. “I went in there with a good intention of doing that. But I had to leave because I knew that what they were doing was wrong.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article said MCFS was “less forthcoming” about information regarding the Paso Staff Secure facility. The nonprofit has been open about discussing the facility, but has not given tours of it to the press.