Maya, who worked closely with the children at the migrant detention center for youth in Homestead, Florida, witnessed how the overcrowded conditions made the children there sick: someone always seemed to have a fever, a cold, or the chicken pox. She recalls how sometimes, when kids went for a shower, the shampoo bottles would be filled with mites. Or how the children would line up single-file to use the bathroom and she had to refer to them not by their names, but by a series of numbers, in accordance with the shelter’s policy.
Maya also remembers all the things she was told never to tell the children: That allegations had surfaced of child sex abuse inside the shelter. That activists outside were fighting for their release. That every so often, someone managed to escape. And that the detention center was surrounded by Superfund sites, a term used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for land it’s cleaning up because it contains improperly managed toxic waste.
“Supposedly, the whole terrain was contaminated,” said Maya, whose name has been changed to protect her from legal scrutiny. “We knew. We all knew. The kids were the only ones who didn’t know.”
Homestead Temporary Shelter, which was built in 2016 under the Obama administration, was the U.S. largest detention center for unaccompanied minors, once holding up 3,200 children. It had become notorious for images of kids crammed inside of large, white tents. In June 2019, several Democratic candidates—including then-presidential hopeful Kamala Harris—visited the site and saw children separated from their families beyond a fence. They were “lined up like prisoners,” she told Buzzfeed News at the time. “It was horrible.”
Candidates also used the center as an example of the Trump administration’s cruelty. “I will tell you, when I am elected, one of the first things I am going to do is shut down these private detention facilities, just shut ‘em down,” Harris said. That August, the shelter closed due to growing public pressure—and a decreasing need for it.
Now, as first reported by the Miami Herald, the Biden administration is planning to reopen Homestead, renamed Biscayne Influx Care Facility, to make room for a growing number of Central American migrant children arriving at the southern border. The news came shortly after this administration reopened another controversial detention facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas. (In an email to VICE News, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees detention facilities that house minors, did not confirm nor deny the reopening of the Florida site.)
Human rights organizations argue that opening Biscayne should be illegal because it sits on the Homestead Air Force Superfund site. Among other waste, the land contains arsenic, lead, and mercury, which are known to cause immune problems and increase the risk of cancer in children. The nonprofit environmental organization Earthjustice also expressed concerns about “metals, pesticides, semi-volatile and volatile organic compounds” in the groundwater around the detention center; another report raised worries about its proximity to an air reserve base where fighter planes create noise that exceed the acceptable limit for residential homes.
Homestead is just one of many migrant detention centers that have been proposed or already built on top of Superfund sites, according to documents obtained by VICE News. Although Superfund sites are sometimes approved for residential use, Homestead Air Force Base is not. Detention centers and prisons are not considered residences, even though hundreds of people sleep, drink, and bathe in them, a loophole that has allowed government agencies to place thousands of people on top of otherwise useless land in for-profit prisons and detention centers. In some cases, the proximity of detention centers to Superfund sites has made migrant detainees sick, according Earthjustice and other legal groups.
The EPA, which is responsible for helping to oversee the cleanup of Superfund sites, told VICE News it did not have concerns about the opening of Biscayne environmental-wise, since it determined the cleanup in the area to be virtually complete.
“The remaining contamination at Homestead Air Force Base is contained within the installation boundaries to which the general public does not have access,” the EPA said in an email.
But Erin Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for Earthjustice, disagreed. “We don’t have conclusive proof that these sites are safe,” she said. “It’s something that we are very concerned about, not just from a human rights perspective, but also from an environmental perspective.”
In September, Marvin Cua, a 23-year old migrant from Guatemala detained at Adelanto ICE Processing Center in southern California, felt a persistent bitterness in his mouth, so he went to the medical office to get it checked out. A stool test revealed he had acquired H. pylori, bacteria often transmitted through contaminated water that can cause peptic ulcers and digestive issues.
For a while, Cua didn’t think much of his diagnosis and was prescribed a cocktail of antibiotics that consisted of eight pills a day—four in the morning and four at night. Then, he noticed that others were receiving the same medication, and, after talking to them, learned they also had H. pylori. One of the guys even went to the hospital, Cua said. “I was really worried.”
Six months later, Cua continues to experience nausea and stomach pains. According to Shut Down Adelanto Coalition, made up of several immigrant rights organizations in southern California, at least three other people at the detention center acquired H. pylori.
Adelanto is situated 7 miles from the George Air Force Base Superfund site, which sits on a former military facility used to store military aircraft. According to the EPA, the groundwater around the base contains over 2 million gallons of discarded jet fuel and other pollutants. In 2016, the local water board estimated cleanup of the site could take up to 500 years and the groundwater that is connected to the former Air Force base also flows into the supply wells of Adelanto.
Although other factors besides the Superfund site might have led to the bacterial outbreak at Adelanto, Margaret Hellerstein, the attorney representing Cua for the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, believes the water was to blame—detainees complained about its taste and H. pylori was found in the water of other prisons and detention centers in the area.
“Adelanto didn’t take any responsibility,” Hellerstein told VICE News. “They (told the detainees) that it was their fault for being dirty.”
Inmates and staff at the nearby Victorville Federal Correctional Complex, which also receives undocumented immigrants, reported several miscarriages and stomach ulcers caused by H. pylori, according to the San Bernardino Sun.
In the past two years, many other migrant detention centers have been proposed on top of military Superfund sites, including on Fort Bliss and Goodfellow in Texas. Because military land is already federally owned, it often gets transferred to other government agencies, according to Emma Shaw Crane, a researcher at New York University who studies the links between detention centers and Superfunds. Land that was once military bases becomes readily available for detention centers and prisons, but the same land also contains lots of toxic waste, which can take decades to manage—approximately 130 bases across the U.S. are considered Superfund priorities, which means that they still warrant further cleanup.
In 2019, Earthjustice raised concerns about the proposed Goodfellow site, which would have sat near a former firing range contaminated with lead, a leaking fuel storage facility, and a toxic chemical landfill.
Neither Fort Bliss or Goodfellow was completed—notably, not because of environmental or health concerns, but because of its cost and because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was focused on building more capacity at Homestead, according to internal documents.
“We’re unlikely to request support,” a government worker wrote in an email about Fort Bliss, adding that acquiring the site from the Department of Defense “proved an expensive option.”
Other investigations have found Superfunds located on or near the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas, and the South Texas Family Residential Center near San Antonio, all of which are still operating.
When Biscayne opens, it may not look exactly as Homestead did under Trump. The Biden administration said it is aiming to speed up the process and release people who are in immigration custody, making it easier for family members to claim unaccompanied children stuck in migrant shelters.
But many immigrant rights advocates are pointing to this detention center as an example of how past wrongs are being repeated. Despite the EPA’s reassurance that the Homestead Superfund site is safe, a report found the contaminants move after storms and the site would have to be frequently re-tested—something the EPA does not do.
“Water and dirt and dust rearrange this landscape,” Crane said. Biscayne’s “proximity to these toxic sites means that it’s not a safe place for children under any circumstance.”
Meanwhile, some argue that opening more detention centers is a necessary evil because the alternative would be to turn away all children or to cram them into cages at the border.
But Guadalupe De la Cruz, a program director at the abolitionist organization American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), thinks the solution lies elsewhere. She believes that detention centers might not be needed if the government was committed to getting people out of the hands of federal agencies and walking them through the process of reuniting with their families. That way, children would not have to get lost in a bureaucracy that puts their health at risk.
De La Cruz played an important part in putting public pressure on the government to close Homestead and made it politically impossible to keep it open two years ago, something that she is committed to doing once more.
“This detention center was closed because people came together and saw how negative it was,” De La Cruz told VICE News. “We shut it down once. So we’ll shut it down again.”
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