A company looking to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children in San Antonio faced a wave of opposition from local elected leaders and community groups this week after it signed a lease with an Eastside church.

Representatives from Arizona-based VisionQuest, which contracts with the federal government to operate shelters for migrants, and the Second Baptist Church said on Friday they have no plans to withdraw a request for a City zoning change that would allow the company to locate its shelter in the church.

“Our plan is for a shelter for unaccompanied migrant youth who came here seeking asylum,” said Second Baptist Church Deacon Thomas Washington. “The facility will not be a detention center.”

But reports of abusive behavior at other VisionQuest facilities over the years in Philidelphia and New Jersey should disqualify it from doing business in the Church, some local leaders have said.

“I will not allow an organization or any other person to put vulnerable children in another state of being compromised … mentally, physically, [or] emotionally,” said Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2).

Andrews-Sullivan held a press conference Friday morning to protest the Second Baptist Church’s deal with VisionQuest. She was joined by Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), local faith leaders, area residents, and representatives from the progressive groups Texas Organizing Project, MOVE Texas, and the Southwest Workers Union.

“Today I’m standing here to protect God’s children,” said Calvert, who read a list of accusations of mismanagement and abuse involving VisionQuest.

Calvert cited an incident earlier this year in which VisionQuest chairman and founder Robert Burton asked employees in training to stop speaking Spanish and reports of physical abuse in a VisionQuest center for troubled youths in Philadelphia, among others dating back to 1984. VisionQuest faced similar opposition this summer to a facility for migrants it plans to open in New Mexico.

“Any time there’s an incident or allegation, then we take appropriate action immediately,” said Harold Arant, who oversees VisionQuest operations in Texas. Arant and Washington spoke to reporters after attending the press conference. “We’re monitored by state licensing, we’re monitored by the federal government, and we would be heavily monitored here, too. … Our mission is to serve and create a safe environment for these children.”

The zoning request would allow the church to increase its current occupancy limit for its community center from 19 children to 90. VisionQuest signed a $3.2 million lease with the church, located at 3310 East Commerce St., which would convert its 44,500-square-foot center into a shelter for boys aged 11-17 who entered the U.S. unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.

The deal would also help the church pay off debts associated with building the $4.1 million community center and provide additional revenue for its community programming, Washington said.

“It seems like [Andrews-Sullivan and Calvert] have something in mind that they want us to pursue and our church members have voted on something else,” he said.

Calvert said he worked to help the church when he learned it was having financial issues and found a charter school interested in the space. The Compass Rose Academy proposed a five-year, $5.8 million lease, Calvert said.

“We discussed the charter school in-depth with our deacons and trustees meeting,” Washington said. “We determined that we preferred to go with the offer from VisionQuest. … Based on our information it was a better offer. VisionQuest has a [reliable] government contract.”

VisionQuest has a $14.5 million contract with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) through the Office of Refugee Resettlement to operate two migrant shelters in the San Antonio area. VisionQuest is looking into a location in Universal City, but Arant said the details are not final.

Nonprofit organizations Baptist Child and Family Services, Catholic Charities, and Southwest Key Programs operate six other migrant shelters in San Antonio.

“This is a cost-reimbursement contract,” Arant said. “So we get paid for the cost of utilizing the facility and providing services for children. … There’s a 10 percent [payment] on top of the cost that we utilize to reinvest in the program. … We’re not making a profit off of it.”

VisionQuest also has operated an in-home therapy and services program for the Bexar County Probation Office for six years, he said.

If the zoning change is approved by City Council, VisionQuest would begin receiving unaccompanied boys that have already been detained at the border and processed through HHS, Arant said.

Second Baptist Church is located off Commerce Street on the East Side of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

They would be held at the shelter for a maximum of 90 days and receive medical care, including therapy, and other services while VisionQuest looks for family members or guardians they can stay with while in the U.S., or places them in a foster home, he said.

“Once we find out a place where they can go safely, they are able to leave,” Arant said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg told reporters earlier this week that he strongly opposes the zoning change and the location of a for-profit migrant shelter in San Antonio.

“I’m sympathetic to the church’s desire to generate revenue and be self-sustaining, but I am not comfortable with dropping a facility like this in the heart of our city,” Nirenberg said, citing a concern that it will “exacerbate” the challenge of dealing with migrants arriving from other countries at the U.S. Mexico border. “The City will not be an accomplice to establishing another for-profit facility that will detain migrant children indefinitely as the humanitarian crisis at the border continues to be unresolved.”

Last week, a federal judge blocked regulations from President Donald Trump’s administration that would have allowed indefinite detention of families entering the country illegally. That decision may face a lengthy appeal process to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We don’t have a political agenda,” Arant said. ” … We fight hard to find the families that these children are looking for.”

If they are found, they are released to await immigration proceedings. “If that can’t work, we look for foster families and if that can’t work, they go to long-term foster care [facility within HHS’ network]. They would not be here indefinitely.”

Some protesters said for-profit companies should not be trusted to care for vulnerable migrant communities.

“For an area that’s accustomed to being framed with terms like neglect, neglect is never what the Eastside people show back,” said Alex Birnel, advocacy manager with MOVE Texas. “… Eastside institutions should not join, even with earnest intent, in any part of the migrant industrial complex because profit and human rights do not mix.”

But the church itself is a nonprofit, Washington said.

“We are all aware of the problem at the border with the deplorable conditions in the detention centers and the bad publicity,” he said. “Our church members would not have voted for that. Our church members would not bring any shame [or] disgrace to this community.”

Nonprofits that received HHS grants also receive money, Arant said. “We’re not some big, corporate, publicly traded organization. … A for-profit receives money for services and a nonprofit receives money for the services. We pay taxes. They probably don’t.”

When Rev. Helen Boursier volunteered at the Karnes Family Detention Center to counsel the families inside, she did it with donations and “the love of God.”

“You cross the line when you do it for money,” Boursier recalled a colleague telling her at the time. “Second Baptist Church has crossed the line. They’re doing it to pay their mortgage.”

Boursier, an ordained Presbyterian minister, author, and educator, sent a letter to church leaders urging them to back out of the deal.

“You will be a minion of the Trump administration if you continue forward with your plan to profit off these vulnerable children,” she wrote in the letter that was also sent to political leaders. “Your hands will not be clean.”

Details of the contract between Second Baptist Church and VisionQuest are still being worked out, Washington said.

A vote is not yet scheduled on the zoning request, according to a VisionQuest attorney, but it could occur as soon as Nov. 5.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...