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Former Southwest Key employee pleads guilty to harboring migrant child who ran away from Casa Padre

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A former Southwest Key employee pleaded guilty Tuesday to helping a Honduran teenager escape from Casa Padre in Brownsville — and allowing him to live with her for three months.

Karla Izaguirre, 24, of Brownsville pleaded guilty Tuesday to harboring a minor who wasn't legally present in the United States.

Southwest Key fired Izaguirre after becoming aware of the allegations, said Vice President of Communications Neil Nowlin.

"We took the appropriate and necessary disciplinary steps in this incident, including terminating her employment. We immediately reported her actions to licensing authorities and law enforcement officials, assisting throughout the investigation to ensure she could be held accountable," Nowlin said. "Any mistreatment or abuse of a child is unacceptable and violates the mission that guides us every day." 

An attorney who represents Izaguirre said in an email that "An interview at this stage is not possible."

Southwest Key holds migrant children for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in HHS’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is committed to ensuring the safety of the unaccompanied alien children (UAC) referred to our care. Presently we have approximately 970 UAC in our custody throughout our care-provider network," according to a statement released by the Administration for Children and Families. "ORR has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of inappropriate behavior involving care-provider staff at ORR facilities. We act quickly to address alleged violations of policy, including initiating employee disciplinary action, termination, or reporting to law enforcement agencies and any relevant licensing bodies."

The investigation started in January, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about employee misconduct at Casa Padre, a shelter for migrant children operated by Southwest Key.

“The referral was based on reporting by Health and Human Services regarding a contraband phone that was found in the possession of minors at the facility that contained nude photographs of an adult staff member,” according to the criminal complaint against Izaguirre.

The criminal complaint doesn’t identify the staff member in the nude photos.

An ICE Homeland Security Investigations task force started interviewing Casa Padre employees. During an interview, an employee allowed agents to access her phone.

Agents found a chat “that discussed the planning and execution of the escape of a juvenile who resided at Southwest Key Casa Padre,” according to the criminal complaint.

Agents identified three employees involved in the plan.

According to the criminal complaint, a Honduran teenager ran away on July 5, 2019, when migrant children from Casa Padre visited the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum.

After the Honduran teenager ran away, he lived with Izaguirre for three months.

Homeland Security Investigations declined to comment because the criminal case remains pending.

Izaguirre pleaded guilty Tuesday to harboring a minor who wasn’t lawfully present in the United States, which is punishable by a maximum of five years in federal prison.

Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 8.

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