The presence of 20 minors, all unaccompanied males between ages 12 to 17, staying up to a month at VisionQuest’s facility in Benson prompted public comments during and after a town hall ranging from sympathy for the kids’ plight to demands for city officials to pull the company’s business license, and calls for local police to forcibly remove the children.
Tucson-based VisionQuest’s facility in Benson is housed in a former Days Inn which underwent renovations in 2020. It is one of more than 100 temporary shelters and long-term residential facilities across the country for unaccompanied children from several Central and South American countries.
Benson Mayor Joe Konrad, City Manager Vicki Vivian, and Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels toured the VisionQuest facility last week, prompting the mayor to host the two-hour April 1 town hall to allow the company’s chief operating officer an opportunity to explain how what is occurring at the high-fenced property.
He also allowed the public to ask questions, some of which centered on the lack of help by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Mark Kelly with the local impact of the border crisis. Other comments addressed the legality VisionQuest’s business license and occupancy permit, as well as whether city officials are violating federal immigration laws by allowing the youth to remain within the city limits.
At least one resident has suggested the Benson Police Department or Cochise County Sheriff’s Office should demand the children leave the city, or even remove them if necessary.
According to COO Carol Keller, the first unaccompanied minors came to the facility through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement in February. All of the youth who enter VisionQuest’s facility are boys ages 12 to 17 who passed screening by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to weed out anyone with gang affiliations or medical conditions.
Once at the Benson facility, the boys receive childhood vaccinations and are tested for COVID-19. They also undergo diagnostic assessments, as well as screening for human trafficking concerns and crisis intervention needs.
Then each boy is placed in a single-bed room for a 14-day quarantine while VisionQuest staff perform various assessments and work with the refugee program to locate a family member or other sponsor to take custody of the child. None of the children stay more than 30 days in the Benson location, Keller said, meaning that anyone not placed with a sponsor by then is transferred to another ORR-approved facility.
Although the Benson facility is contracted to house up to 60 children, Keller explained that COVID-19 protocols and staffing needs has the current number of kids at only 20. She added that there is one care specialist for each eight kids, the same ratio as case managers to kids.
Some town hall attendees expressed concern with public safety due to the presence of the children. However, Keller said the children will not be enrolled in Benson area schools nor be allowed outside of the locked high fenced property.
To date in fiscal year 2021, VisionQuest and its various Arizona locations have been awarded more than $10 million to shelter and care for unaccompanied minors at the border. Keller told the town hall attendees she is not involved with the financial side of the company and therefore did not know who much VisionQuest is receiving per child.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles which will look at the myriad government agencies legally tasked with ensuring unaccompanied children are properly cared for, along with the non-government organizations (NGOs) and for-profit companies receiving millions of taxpayer monies to house, feed, counsel, medically treat, and educate the children.