• September 19th, 2021
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Federal Judge Grants MALDEF Request to Enter Lawsuit Over Controversial Detention Center For Migrant Children


A federal court on April 17th, allowed two San Antonio, Texas residents, who are seeking to block a for-profit company from opening a controversial detention center for migrant children, to intervene in a lawsuit.

In February, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Lettye and Renee Watson, two residents who live near a proposed detention center at the heart of a lawsuit filed by a church that partnered with the private detention firm. The church’s lawsuit contends that San Antonio must grant the church a zoning variance in order to allow VisionQuest, a private detention firm, to operate a child detention facility in a residential neighborhood.

“Neither VisionQuest nor Second Baptist have any constitutional right to lock up immigrant children for profit,” said Nina Perales, MALDEF vice president of litigation and counsel in the case. “The Watsons look forward to participating in this litigation, starting with their motion to dismiss the case.”

In his ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra held that the Watsons met all the requirements for intervention, including showing that, as nearby property owners, they have an important stake in the outcome of the lawsuit.  The judge also allowed the Watsons to file a motion to dismiss the church’s case.

The church sued San Antonio officials in January, alleging that the City violated the church’s religious freedom rights by refusing to rezone a community center on the church campus.

“Jailing innocent kids in exchange for money has no moral or political legitimacy,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.  “And the veneer of religion offers this abominable practice no protective sanction.”

Second Baptist sought a zoning change in order to lease its building to VisionQuest, an Arizona-based detention company. VisionQuest has offered to pay the church $3.2 million to lease the center and turn it into a for-profit detention facility for immigrant children.

VisionQuest has come under scrutiny for conditions at other facilities it operates in several states, including allegations of abuse at a youth.

A Chronology of VisionQuest in Texas

In 2019, VisionQuest, a for-profit private company that operates child detention facilities in several states, applies to open and operate immigrant detention centers for migrant children in Universal City, San Antonio and Waco, Texas. The company, which has a long record of abuse and neglect of children in its care, is repeatedly turned away.

August 2019: Tucson-based VisionQuest receives a $14.6 million contract from the federal government to open two immigration detention centers for migrant children in Texas .

September 30, 2019:  Second Baptist Church in San Antonio requests a zoning change from the city after signing a $3.2 million agreement with VisionQuest to lease the church’s 44,000-square-foot building to operate as a for-profit child detention center. The center would house up to 90 boys. Implementing the agreement requires VisionQuest and Second Baptist to secure a zoning change for the property.

Oct. 17, 2019: VisionQuest submits a zoning request in Universal City that would allow the company to build a detention center for migrant children in an abandoned elementary school. The Universal City location is estimated to cost $6 million.

Oct. 22, 2019:  Attorneys for Second Baptist Church send a letter to the City of San Antonio warning it will sue city officials, alleging that the denial of a zoning permit violates the church’s religious freedom.

Nov. 4, 2019: MALDEF testifies before the Universal City Zoning Commission, urging officials to reject VisionQuest’s request to rezone a former elementary school so it can open a detention center. The commission unanimously recommends that the Universal City City Council deny VisionQuest’s zoning request.

Nov. 5, 2019:  The San Antonio Zoning Commission rejects a request from VisionQuest and Second Baptist Church to rezone the leased church property from an Arts and Entertainment Historic District to a Commercial Historic Landmark district, allowing VisionQuest  to operate a detention center. MALDEF is among those who urge the commission to deny the zoning change.

Nov. 19, 2019:  MALDEF and local residents testify before the Universal City City Council, urging the council to reject the VisionQuest plan. The council votes unanimously to deny the zone change.

Dec. 5, 2019: The San Antonio City Council, following a public hearing which includes testimony from MALDEF, denies VisionQuest’s zoning request.

Dec. 23, 2019: VisionQuest submits an online application to the Waco Plan Commission for a special permit to turn a former nursing home into a migrant child detention center.

Jan. 6, 2020: VisionQuest, now in partnership with New Covenant Family Church, once again appears before the Universal City Zoning Commission seeking a different type of zone change for the same abandoned elementary school. MALDEF again urges the commission to deny the request.

Jan. 10, 2020: Second Baptist files a federal lawsuit against the City of San Antonio challenging the denial of the zoning change as a violation of the church’s religious freedom rights. The church also requests a preliminary injunction.

Jan. 21, 2020: Universal City City Council again rejects VisionQuest’s request for a zoning change that would allow VisionQuest to operate a detention center for migrant children in a former elementary school.

Jan. 28, 2020: The Waco Planning Commission unanimously recommends that the Waco City Council deny VisionQuest permission to turn a vacant building on the east side of the city into a detention center for migrant children after residents voice their opposition to the plan.

Feb. 18, 2020: MALDEF files a request in federal court to intervene in Second Baptist Church v San Antonio on behalf of two San Antonio homeowners who live near the proposed detention center and who support the city’s decision to deny the zoning change. MALDEF also files a motion to dismiss Second Baptist’s suit.

Feb. 18, 2020: MALDEF testifies with others before the Waco City Council against VisionQuest’s plan to open a detention center. The Waco City Council agrees and denies VisionQuest’s permit.

Feb. 24, 2020:  The federal judge in Second Baptist Church v San Antonio denies the church’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed VisionQuest to open the child migrant detention center in San Antonio.

April 17, 2020: The federal judge in Second Baptist Church v San Antonio allows MALDEF’s clients to intervene in the case and support the city’s decision to deny the zoning change.

 

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Nina Perales 3/20/20 3:51 PM

I changed this because I don’t know the geographic area specified in the contract/s