By Anika Prakash
Anika Prakash is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences who plans on studying English and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.
Time and time again, the lives of undocumented children have been wrestled around at the hands of the federal government, often through proxies such as zoning law. Earlier this year, VisionQuest, a private Arizona-based youth agency, received a $5.3 million contract from the Trump administration allowing them to house sixty migrant boys between the ages of 12 and 17 at their North Philadelphia shelter; however, this is not the first time they have received such a contract. VisionQuest previously housed children at the same location and was shut down towards the end of 2017 due to numerous reports of abuse (both physical and emotional) and neglect. A staff member shoved a child’s head through the wall and another child was choked and slapped, among other horrific acts. Additionally, the facility was not cleaned and several staff members were completely untrained . Furthermore, when children were housed in this facility, they were confined to its walls and not allowed to attend local schools or become a part of the surrounding community .
This lack of responsible and compassionate care by VisionQuest is not an isolated occurrence either; they have been involved in various controversies dating back to 1987 and their staff members have repeatedly abused the children they claim to protect, even to the point of death . As such, when VisionQuest received a new contract this year, outrage ensued and both Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and several non-profit groups such as Juntos, an immigration and human rights organization based in South Philadelphia, worked to prevent the “shelter” from opening; however, it seems as though they have lost this battle for now.
In April of this year, the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment upheld a decision by the Department of Licenses and Inspections requiring VisionQuest to obtain a new zoning permit . In July, VisionQuest challenged this decision in the Commonwealth Court, where Judge Ann Covey once again upheld the ruling, writing that the organization had “failed to establish that it would suffer irreparable injury if it could not open the center soon” . The Kenney administration was able to prevent the shelter from opening for several months, and this even led to the firing of 65 VisionQuest employees as the company could no longer pay them to run an empty facility . The organization did not let up, appealing the case to the Common Pleas Court, where the judge ruled in their favor in late October, arguing that “the city had incorrectly applied zoning law.” Although the city seems to have lost the case as of now, they hope to appeal the case to the Commonwealth Court once again and then potentially to the state Supreme Court as well .
While the battle between the Kenney administration and VisionQuest may have played out as a legal conflict over zoning laws, the root of the issue is a moral one. At the end of the day, the primary problem is that the federal government is providing multi-million dollar funding to an irresponsible private organization that will abuse, neglect, and isolate migrant teenage boys who are already fleeing violence and conflict in their home countries. First and foremost, the Kenney administration and these non-profit organizations are fighting for these children’s rights to live free from harm and to not be restrained, especially not by a business that profits from controlling them rather than aiding them during this difficult transition to an unfamiliar environment.
As Mayor Kenney was recently reelected, it is safe to say that his administration will continue appealing this case over the coming months in order to drive VisionQuest out of Philadelphia. Even then, however, Pennsylvania as a whole still houses three family detention centers that are similarly ridden with accounts of neglect and abuse, the most contested one being the Berks family detention center, another private organization operating through a contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency. Protesters continue to fight these centers as well; last October, several groups staged sit-ins at Governor Tom Wolf’s Philadelphia and Harrisburg offices, but unfortunately, no formal action was taken against these detention centers . Hypothetically speaking, however, if the VisionQuest case reaches the state Supreme Court and it rules in the city’s favor, it is possible that some kind of precedent could be established to close down or otherwise better regulate other centers as well.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
 Gammage, Jeff. “Accused of harming children at its North Philly shelter, VisionQuest now plans to house immigrant youth here.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. October 26, 2018. https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/visionquest-immigrant-children-philadelphia-shelter-abuse-20181026.html
 Gammage, Jeff. “For agencies like VisionQuest, holding migrant children brings millions of dollars.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. April 19, 2019. https://www.inquirer.com/news/immigration-migrant-children-trump-vision-quest-detained-philly-20190419.html
 Lozano, Alicia Victoria. “Controversial Philadelphia Facility VisionQuest Could House 60 Undocumented Minors.” NBC Philadelphia. October 24, 2018. https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/Controversial-Philadelphia-Facility-VisionQuest-Could-House-60-Undocumented-Minors-498436541.html
 Gammage, Jeff. “Court blocks Arizona-based youth agency from moving undocumented migrant children into North Philly shelter.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. July 3, 2019. https://www.inquirer.com/news/immigration-visionquest-migrant-children-unaccompanied-minors-20190703.html
 Gregg, Cherri. “Exclusive: Company planning to open North Philly facility for migrant kids has laid off all employees after lengthy zoning battle.” KYW Newsradio. October 31, 2019. https://kywnewsradio.radio.com/articles/news/exclusive-visionquest-workers-laid-after-zoning-battle
 Gammage, Jeff. “Court rules for VisionQuest in zoning battle over proposed site to house migrant children in Philadelphia.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. November 1, 2019. https://www.inquirer.com/news/visionquest-shelter-unaccompanied-minors-immigration-bethany-devereux-20191101.html
 Maas, David. “Protesters continue to demand action on Berks family detention center.” Al Día. October 31, 2018. https://aldianews.com/articles/politics/protesters-continue-demand-action-berks-family-detention-center/54303