A day after he was denied access to check on immigrant children being held at a facility in Homestead, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that at least 174 kids separated from their parents were being housed in his state, including 94 in the previously dormant facility in Homestead.
As Nelson and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, both Democrats, waited for permission from the Department of Health and Human Services to tour the facility, their aides worked to account for dozens of children being held somewhere in Florida.
One facility housing some of the children separated from their parents is His House Children's Home, a shelter for migrant children and foster kids run by a nonprofit organization in Miami Gardens, Executive Director Silvia Smith-Torres confirmed Thursday to the Miami Herald. His House, which had previously said it was unable to confirm or deny whether it was housing children separated from their families at the border, also shelters children who immigrated to the United States on their own.
Smith-Torres said rules from HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement prevent His House from disclosing any additional information about the children, including their ages and nationalities and the number currently housed at the facility who were separated from their parents. His House has 126 beds allocated for immigrant children in addition to beds set aside for foster children from the United States.
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Another Miami-Dade County facility believed to be housing immigrant children is Boys Town in Cutler Bay, although representatives for the facility did not respond to questions on Thursday. A spokesperson for HHS could not be reached.
At His House, the immigrant children live in homes on the campus and are separated as much as possible based on their age, Smith-Torres said. They attend classes at an on-site school staffed by Miami-Dade public school teachers and counselors, which operates year-round. The children also go on field trips.
"Our homes are home-like environments," Smith-Torres said. "We comfort our kids and we have clinicians on site who immediately address any of the issues that arise."
The Trump administration's policy separating children from parents detained by immigration authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border, which was reversed Wednesday, has drawn harsh criticism from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as civil rights and children's groups. Pope Francis and the four living former First Ladies also denounced the policy.
Since the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy was enacted in April by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, immigration authorities have separated more than 2,000 children from their parents. It is unclear if they will be reunited with their families, as Trump's executive order did not address that issue.
His House's procedures haven't changed in response to Trump's executive order, said Elizabeth Anon, the organization's in-house legal counsel. "It's business as usual," she said. "We continue to process these children."
"In the meantime, we love on them," Smith-Torres added.
Smith-Torres stressed that His House meets all state requirements including for staff training and background checks and the staff-to-child ratio. During the day, there is one staff person for every six children and at night one for every 12, she said. His House employs Spanish-speaking staff so they can communicate with children from foreign countries.
"We want to make sure we're supervising these children and they're not in harm's way, that they're well taken care of, and we're following the administrative code," Anon said. "We try to provide as much normalcy as possible while these children are here."
His House has been scrutinized for compliance problems in the past, however.
Following the arrest and conviction of a former His House employee for extortion, the U.S. Inspector General conducted a review of the facility in December 2017.
The federal watchdog determined that His House might have mishandled the cases of 652 children between 2013 and 2014, calling into question how the facility conducted background checks for sponsors, provided medical care and notified the Department of Homeland Security of the kids' release to sponsors.
His House disputed the watchdog's findings. The organization noted that 2014 was a "surge" year for immigration and said it had made clerical errors, but agreed to follow the Inspector General's recommendations. Those included ensuring policies and procedures were followed when releasing a child to a sponsor, increasing oversight of case files and putting in place a more thorough financial management system.
"This was a difficult period of adjustment for all the care providers across the nation who accommodated the care and processing of children in their facilities during a high period of influx," His House wrote in the organization's response. "The analogy can be made with that of 'changing the tires on a moving school bus.' "
So far this year, Florida's migrant facilities have released nearly 2,400 unaccompanied minors to sponsors, the second highest number in the nation behind California, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
His House's program for immigrant children was established in 2008 and designated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to care for unaccompanied child migrants. The amount of time a child migrant stays at the shelter depends on his or her family situation, Anon said.
Although His House has coordinated visits for the relatives of immigrant children, Smith-Torres said she could not say whether the visits were to children separated from their families at the border or children who immigrated to the United States alone.
On Saturday, Nelson will tour the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children and speak to some of the nearly 100 kids there who were separated from their parents.
"Despite denying him access to the facility Tuesday, HHS officials have assured Nelson that he will be allowed inside the facility to meet with the kids," Nelson's office wrote in a prepared statement.
Nelson will be joined by other lawmakers, including U.S. representatives Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson. Democratic candidates for governor have planned an event at the facility as well.
"This issue is bigger than any of our individual campaigns and we can send a louder message to @realDonaldTrump by standing together to resist it," former congresswoman Gwen Graham tweeted in a message to her four opponents: Chris King, Andrew Gillum, Philip Levine and Jeff Greene.