BENSON — Members of this community are raising concerns about a facility in Benson that houses unaccompanied migrant children.
Arizona-based business, VisionQuest National LTD, recently remodeled a hotel in Benson for the purpose of housing unaccompanied migrant children. It’s one of several for-profit businesses under contract with the federal government to provide residential housing for children that enter the country without a parent or guardian.
The facility in Benson is one that provides short-term housing, while some in other areas of the state and country are designed for long-term stays.
During a March 22 Benson City Council meeting, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels addressed concerns about the influx of immigrants overwhelming the country’s southwestern borders. He spoke of how unaccompanied migrant children fall victim to drug cartels and human trafficking, as well as security risks associated with the current immigration crisis.
During that meeting, members of the public raised questions about VisionQuest, with some asking why city officials allowed such a facility in the community.
Benson resident Dawn Barrett — one of several who spoke at the meeting — noted that “Illegals housed at the facility are not tested for COVID until after they arrive,” an issue that raised concerns throughout the room.
In an interview following the sheriff’s presentation, Barrett said that Cochise County’s immigration situation is even worse than she thought, describing it as both “disturbing and frightening.” She also spoke of VisionQuest’s “lack of transparency,” a concern raised by others at the meeting.
Multiple attempts by the Herald/Review to reach VisionQuest CEO Mark Contento for comment were unsuccessful.
However, a few days after the council meeting, VisionQuest reached out to Sheriff Dannels and Benson Mayor Joe Konrad with an invitation to tour the Benson facility, which they accepted.
“After the tour on Tuesday with Sheriff Dannels, we both found it to be a safe, secure and sanitary place for kids,” Konrad said. “This is short-term residential housing for kids. Typically, they are housed between seven and 21 days, but because of COVID, every child is quarantined for 14 days upon arrival, so the stays are a little longer.”
While the facility is capable of housing 80 occupants, Dannels was told the most VisionQuest expects to house there is 60. Currently, there are about 20 children there, Dannels said.
“The facility is for low-risk males ranging from 12 to 17 years old,” Dannels said. “It’s very organized and well-run, unlike what we’re seeing on TV, with the overcrowded facilities along the border.”
There is one case worker assigned to eight kids, and all of the children are receiving six hours of education, as well as medical, psychological and legal services, Dannels said.
“They are being provided with all the basic needs for children,” he added.
Oversight is through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), along with the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program, which is managed by ORR within the Administration for Children and Families.
While Dannels and Konrad agree that the VisionQuest facility is providing a safe haven for the migrant children, they are troubled by the fact these facilities are even necessary.
“We’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” Konrad said. “With thousands of unaccompanied migrant children flooding the border, we have a serious immigration problem in this country. VisionQuest grew out of a need that came with this border crisis, which has multiplied exponentially because of the current administration.”
While the community is upset about VisionQuest, they’re actually a very small player in all this, Konrad said.
Councilmember Lupe Diaz agrees.
“We need to provide the community with an update about the facility and the services it’s providing the illegal immigrant children being housed there,” he said. “There are a lot of concerns regarding this issue, and we want to address those concerns. I’m glad Sheriff Dannels and Mayor Konrad were able to tour the facility, and for VisionQuest’s willingness to open it up to them. Transparency is the best way to provide the facts so we know how to respond personally and realistically to this new issue.”
In an effort to address the public’s questions, Konrad will hold a meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. in the City Council Chambers, 599 S. Dragoon St. to address the issues. Look for a recap of the meeting in Sunday’s edition of the Herald/Review.