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The members of Congress who visited Homestead — a South Florida shelter for migrant children plagued by allegations of abuse and mistreatment — were shocked by what they saw Tuesday. Or rather, by how much they didn’t see.
Pennsylvania Rep. Madeleine Dean told VICE News the group only saw about 40 children out of the 2,296 Customs and Border Protections said were being held there. Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson said she was especially concerned about the girls — she'd been told there were some 700 girls at the facility, but she'd only seen about 30.
“We saw a lot of the property. We saw an empty dormitory that had been made up very nicely. We saw a cafeteria: empty. We saw an auditorium: empty,” Dean said. It’s strange that their focus is on children, and they didn’t want us to see the children.”
Other members of Congress who visited Homestead Tuesday described the tour as “sanitized” and “sterile.” And California Rep. Pete Aguilar, who visited another facility holding child migrants in Texas on Monday with a dozen other lawmakers, called that tour “superficial.” The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that oversees these shelters, maintains that the children in its custody are safe and well cared for despite budget issues and allegations of mistreatment at certain facilities. The agency also said it has significantly streamlined the process of releasing children to their families or sponsors.
But if lawmakers aren’t given full access to the facilities, they say they have no way of knowing whether any of that’s true.
“There’s a lot of things they did not show us,” said Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence, who attended the Homestead tour. “It was obvious we were being given the most polished, the most clean, the best look we could get.”
“It was obvious we were being given the most polished, the most clean, the best look we could get.”
Homestead is one of 168 shelters for unaccompanied child migrants scattered across the country. Unlike most other shelters, it isn’t a licensed facility and isn’t operated by a nonprofit organization. It’s a “temporary influx shelter” opened to mitigate a recent surge in arrivals — and it’s operated by Caliburn International, a for-profit company.
Casa Franklin, the Texas shelter lawmakers visited on Monday, is operated by Southwest Key, a controversial nonprofit organization that runs the country’s largest network of shelters for migrant children. Unlike Homestead, it’s a small shelter. Dean said it only had space for 56 children, compared to the thousands held in the Florida facility.
“It was a very different setting than Homestead,” Dean said of Casa Franklin. She said the facility had a real classroom with supplies, and the children there said they were learning English. But like the Homestead visit, the delegation that toured Casa Franklin was only given access to a small number of children.
“We got to interact with some of the young people at the ORR facility to talk about how long they had been there,” Aguilar said. “It was very superficial, just asking them how they were doing, but they seemed to be in reasonable spirits.”
The lawmakers who spoke to VICE News said the children they spoke to in both facilities seemed to be doing relatively well. The children that Dean did see, for example, seemed calm and happy.
But they continue to be concerned about a lack of transparency. For example, the kids at Homestead were wearing “fresh, bright-orange caps that looked like they had been put on their heads five minutes earlier,” Dean said.
In May, attorneys with the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law filed a motion alleging “prison-like” conditions at Homestead. Some children described being given “pills” for medical problems. Others said they were told that breaking any rules — like having only five minutes to shower and 10 minutes twice a week to call their family members — would negatively affect their immigration cases.
The delegations also worried about a lack of adequate processing times. The motion against Homestead described children who had been in the shelter for months, which still seems to be the case.
“They’re not moving them out quickly at all,” said Florida Rep. Donna Shalala, adding that some children had been at Homestead for as long as three months. “It’s a clean facility, but it’s a warehouse — they’re warehousing children.”
But a spokesperson with the Administration for Children and Families told VICE News that the average length of care has dropped from 90 days in November to 44 in May 2019. At Homestead, the delegation was told the average stay was just 26 days.
“Remember, this is for-profit,” Dean said of Homestead. “They should be moving [the children] out as quickly as possible, and I know there are people there who want to do that, but there’s a perverse profit motive.”
“Many of these young people have relatives in the U.S.,” Aguilar, who visited Casa Franklin, added. “We need to make sure that the process to reunite families is as quick as possible.”
Releasing children to their sponsors is a complicated process, and with good reason: The government doesn’t want to inadvertently release children into dangerous situations. A 2016 Senate report found that ORR once released more than a dozen immigrant children to a human trafficking ring because it didn’t conduct adequate background checks.
The Trump administration has implemented new rules, like fingerprinting sponsors, ostensibly intended to prevent that from happening. It also shares that information with the Department of Homeland Security. Those rules, however, have scared sponsors, many of whom are undocumented, away from appying, and generally slowed down the process.
Several members of Congress said they were most shocked by the ORR’s policy of turning children over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement on their eighteenth birthdays. Immigration lawyers have said this policy violates Flores, but it continues to happen. Three percent of children in ORR custody have “aged out” since October, the Administration for Children and Families spokesperson told VICE News.
“One child aged out today,” Dean said on Tuesday. “Two will age out tomorrow. And it’s because they haven’t been able to successfully process them out and place them with a family member.”
Cover: Migrant children and employees walk on the grounds of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, Sunday, June 16, 2019, in Homestead, Fla. A coalition of religious groups and immigrant advocates said they want the Homestead detention center closed. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)