In July 2018, Therese Patricia Okoumou wanted to send a message about immigration policy. The activist, a member of the organization Rise and Resist, decided to make her point in dramatic fashion: by climbing the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July, where she hung a banner that read “Abolish ICE” and had a tense, three-hour standoff with police.
After her arrest and release, Okoumou didn’t mince words about her opposition to the immigration policies enacted by the current occupant of the White House. “Trump has wrecked this country apart. It is depressing, it is outrageous,” she said. “I can say a lot of things about this monster, but I will stop at this: His draconian zero-tolerance policy on immigration has to go. In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period.”
On February 20, two months after being convicted on charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing, and interfering with government agency functions for her protest at the Statue of Liberty, Okoumou once more went climbing. Her cause was the same, but her target was closer to the ground. Rather than scale the 22-story landmark, she ascended the four-story Austin headquarters of the non-profit organization Southwest Key, which operates 24 facilities to house undocumented immigrant children in Texas, Arizona, and California.
Southwest Key has attracted considerable attention since the Trump administration announced its family separation policy in 2018. Prior to the policy, the organization’s public reputation was largely based on its work in youth education and youth services. Over the past year, however, the organization has been under fire—for its Executive Director’s $1.5 million salary (twice that of the head of the American Red Cross), for its history of unusual financial dealings, for its apparent tendency to hire staffers with dubious histories around children, and for the hundreds of citations it received from state inspectors over the past three years. Okoumou’s specific reasons for protesting Southwest Key are unclear—at press time, she’s still atop their headquarters—but the organization has become a target for anyone decrying the administration’s current policy around immigration.