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“You Can't Give a Friend a Hug": the Alleged Prison-like Conditions at the Largest U.S. Migrant Children’s Shelter

Attorneys for the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law filed a motion Friday that alleges “prison-like” conditions and questionable medical treatment at the facility.

by Mimi Dwyer and Alexander Stockton
May 31 2019, 10:11pm

One kid at the nation's largest shelter for unaccompanied migrant children said he went over a month with a broken nose without being examined by a doctor. Another said he was vaccinated nine times immediately after arriving — but he was never told why.

Another child at the facility, located in Homestead, Florida, said they’d have to write their name on a piece of paper to schedule bathroom breaks. And if they wrote their name too many times, they might not be allowed to go.

Attorneys for the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law filed a motion Friday that alleges “prison-like” conditions and questionable medical treatment at the facility. In addition to alleging violations of acceptable standards of care, the motion also accuses the facility and its operator Caliburn International of systematically holding children longer than allowed.

“That is a situation that we think is intolerable,” Peter Schey, one of the lawyers who filed the motion, told VICE News. “We think the court needs to intervene and either shut the place down or force the government to keep children there for no longer than one to one or two weeks, or alternatively force that facility to get a license.”

A 1997 rule called the Flores Settlement Agreement states that migrant children can remain in restrictive government facilities for a maximum of 20 days before being released or transferred to a licensed shelter. It’s the backbone of migrant children’s rights in the U.S.

At least one child had been detained for 140 days at the Florida facility, according to the filing. Six children have at some point been at the facility for more than a year, according to government data provided to and analyzed by the attorneys. The most recent government data puts the average length of stay for children released from Homestead last month at 35 days — longer than allowed under Flores.

As part of the motion filed Friday, Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law and its affiliates interviewed 60 minors who described their experiences at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, the population of which has ballooned as a result of the unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors arriving to the U.S.

The motion is an attempt to apply Flores in broader and strengthened ways at Homestead. But the government has argued that facilities like Homestead can be exempted from some Flores rules, in part because they’re on federal land. That conflict will now be examined in court.

The Trump administration has also called for overturning Flores altogether. Doing so would allow the administration to hold children and families for longer periods, or indefinitely.

Unknown pills and harsh rules

Many of the children at Homestead said they didn’t know when they would be released from the facility or how to facilitate the process of leaving, according to the filing. Others said they didn’t have access to attorneys. Even in cases where the children knew the steps that needed to be taken, like having their relatives submit fingerprints, they did not know how to go about making that happen.

The kids also described being given “pills” for a wide range of problems and did not always know what the medications were. Stanford psychologist Ryan Matlow, who went to Homestead and two other migrant children’s facilities to observe conditions, said he saw “clear ongoing psychological harm” to children, according to the motion.

Some children also exhibited signs of anxiety and depression. One child said they had seen girls cut themselves at the facility. “That's why we're not allowed to bring pens or pencils into our bedrooms,” she said, according to the motion.

"That is a situation that we think is intolerable."

Minors also said they were threatened with “reports” for misbehavior, something children at the now-closed Tornillo tent city for migrant children, in Texas, also described. At Homestead, children said they were told that if they broke a rule, a report would be filed that would delay their release and negatively impact their case when they finally appeared before an immigration judge.

Caliburn International, which oversees the facility, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations, but BCFS, the company that ran Tornillo, told VICE News in January that, at its facility, “reports” didn’t exist.

Children listed countless rules, like having only five minutes to shower and 10 minutes twice per week to call family members. “It's disappointing because I can't even access the phone to talk to my mom today on my birthday. Nobody has sung happy birthday to me today,” one child said, according to the motion.

And many children complained about a rule that they couldn’t touch anyone. “Sometimes when your friend is crying because they can’t stand being here any longer, you want to be able to give them a hug,” one kid said according to the filing.

“You can’t give a friend a hug,” another said.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the government agency that oversees the facility, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the allegations.

VIOLATING FLORES

Flores, which stems from a 1985 lawsuit over four immigrant minors who were being detained in a facility for adults, lays out requirements for the conditions of juvenile migrant detention.

In addition to restricting the amount of time that children can be held in unlicensed immigrant detention facilities, the rule also creates a “general policy favoring release.” That means, if possible, children should be sent to parents, guardians, or other eligible caretakers rather than remain in the care of the state.

If that’s not possible, the settlement requires that children be sent to “licensed programs” overseen by state law, and that these programs provide food, clothing, medical care, education, counseling, legal information, and other basic services.

A 2015 interpretation of the settlement by a California judge mandated that those releases happen within 20 days — effectively, that children get released from custody or sent to a licensed shelter in that timeframe.

Homestead, like Tornillo, is a “temporary influx care facility” on federal land. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has said the facility’s temporary status and its location on federal land exempts it from some standards mandated by Flores.

The motion filed Friday argues that the facility “reveals the government’s intentional disregard of the binding provisions of the [Flores] settlement” and sets up a question of whether the government’s justification for exempting the facility from the rule will hold up to legal scrutiny.

The motion argues that the government cannot exempt itself from Flores requirements and demands that the government release minors to sponsors within 20 days or transfer them to licensed facilities that do comply with the rule.