South Dade’s temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors will close on Saturday, federal officials say, and those children who have not been placed with a relative or sponsor in the U.S. will be transferred to a permanent shelter elsewhere.
The temporary site, which housed hundreds of immigrant children at the former Job Corps facility near Homestead Air Reserve Base, opened as a shelter in June 2016. It took in kids ages 13 to 17 who were detained while crossing the Mexican border without their parents. Most were trying to escape danger and poverty in their home countries in Central America.
It’s unclear if the facility’s shutdown is linked to an executive order issued on Feb. 20 by President Donald Trump dealing with border security and enforcement of immigration laws. The Department of Health and Human Services, which announced the closing of the shelter, did not immediately respond to emails from the Miami Herald.
The announcement included no information about the number of children who have lived in the shelter or how many still had not been placed.
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Advocates in the immigration community said they had heard that more would-be immigrants are being turned away at the Mexico-U.S. border. Amy Fischer, the policy director at RAICES — an organization that provides free education and legal services to refugees and immigrants in Texas — told the Miami Herald the numbers are dwindling at the federal shelters.
“After the election we’ve seen numbers drastically dip,” she said. “We’ve heard hundreds of stories of people being turned away at the borders or stories of asylum seekers being given misinformation. We don’t know if people are finding somewhere else to flee, or if they are no longer seeing the U.S. as a safe place to flee because of our new administration.”
Fischer said that a shelter in Texas that has a capacity for 2,400 is housing just under 300 immigrants. Another with a capacity of 800 is hosting about 100 people, she said.
Homeland Security Investigations did not return emails or phone calls Monday evening.
“The Homestead temporary shelter fulfilled a critical, time-sensitive need to provide shelter and care for unaccompanied children referred to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by the Department of Homeland Security,” a press release from Health and Human Services said.
Laws that took effect under former President Barack Obama consider children “unaccompanied minors” when they cross the border without a parent or legal guardian, a classification that ensures special protections mandated by Congress. However, according to Trump’s order, children who are reunited with a parent who is already in the United States no longer meet that definition.
About 60 percent of the unaccompanied children who cross the border are later placed with one or both of their parents who live in the United States illegally, according to a February memo by the Department of Homeland Security.
Trump’s new policy seeks to prosecute parents who live in the U.S. illegally and arrange for their children to travel to the U.S. Under Obama, the children were reunited with their parents and allowed to live here until their immigration cases were reviewed.
Health and Human Services is responsible for providing 24/7 care and safety of the children while they are in the country. Children spend on average 32 days at the shelters while the government looks for a sponsor and the youths await immigration proceedings. Sponsors are usually parents, a relative or a family friend.
The Homestead shelter had the capacity to house up to 800 children, who fled Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. About 100 permanent shelters are operated year-round by the federal government across the country, but the Homestead site was the only active and temporary shelter that was equipped to handle an unexpected overflow of youths.
In 2014, the surge of unaccompanied minors skyrocketed, leaving border patrol officers swamped. With not enough capacity for the 28,679 children who entered the country that year, Health and Human Services worked with Homeland Security to make improvements and set up additional temporary shelters.
In 2015, federal officials suspended classes at the Homestead Job Corps site after four students were arrested and charged with the machete murder of a classmate. With thousands of youths still coming into the U.S. without their parents, the Homestead shelter opened in June 2016. That year, 27,754 unaccompanied minors entered the U.S., according to Homeland Security.
The shelter provided children with schooling, meals and medical care. Counselors worked with kids who had experienced mental, physical or sexual abuse or had escaped gang threats or extreme poverty.
Under Trump’s new policy, children who don’t meet the new definition of “unaccompanied minor” might be subject to expedited removal proceedings.
“During this time it’s very important to understand that the detention deportation machinery comes at a great moral and financial cost and that our country should uphold its values and its historical DNA of welcoming refugees,”said Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.