Some seemed nervous, others slightly hopeful as they sat at the long wooden cafeteria table.
It had been a few weeks — or months — since the eight teens, all under 17, were detained at the migrant facility whose barracks stand behind a chain-link fence partially framed by barbed wire at the old Air Force base in Homestead. They had sought asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, California and Arizona after fleeing from gangs and abject poverty in Central America.
Border Patrol agents detained them, and flew them cross country to Homestead, one of two migrant centers in the nation where the U.S. government, because the centers are on federal land and are considered “temporary emergency shelters,” can hold up to 1,300 children between the ages of 13 and 17 for months at a time. And with the government closing the massive migrant camp in Tornillo, Texas, a few weeks ago, the Trump administration is bulking up Homestead with 1,000 more beds.
That’s got the attention of immigration advocates and lawmakers, who, buoyed by their success in getting the government to close the Texas camp, are training their sights on shuttering Homestead.
“The use of this temporary status, to bypass regulation, to keep children locked up for long periods of time, far exceeding time period set in the Flores Agreement, is chilling,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who reintroduced a bill this week aimed at closing down centers such as Homestead.
“Children belong in homes, schools, and parks — not behind barbed wire,” Merkley said in a statement. “Our taxpayer dollars are being used to traumatize children by keeping them in a child prison camp instead of in the arms of their families. This is evil.”
The children in Homestead trekked through deserts and ravaging rivers — without any family — to escape the violence of their homelands to seek asylum in the United States. Once they get to the center, they are separated by gender. They eat there, sleep there and go to school there.
They usually stand in a single-file line to pick up their lunch trays, much like a high school cafeteria.
About 10 days ago, they had a guest.
“Welcome to the U.S. We’re glad you’re here,” said Alex Azar, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, who arrived in the morning and flew out hours later. Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, accompanied him.
A site manager translated as the children ate a meal with the “student government board,” elected by their fellow peers — four girls, four boys.
“We want to know about your experiences. Anything good, anything bad, anything you want fixed,” he said.
So, as lunch was brought to their table, one 15-year-old girl from Honduras took him up on it.
While tapping her foot against the floor, the girl, who had 11 cut marks on her left inner forearm — an imprint from her time in Honduras — took a gulp, smiled and mustered the confidence to share her thoughts in Spanish.
“Hello, I’m grateful to be here, but there are some things that I would kindly ask for you to consider,” said the girl, who HHS requested the Herald not identify. Sweat dripped down her forehead, her fingers fidgeting.
“Sometimes my sister doesn’t answer the phone and I run out of time, leaving me with no one to talk to. Can we get more time to talk to our families?”
Silence filled the room. Azar and Johnson then cited the shelter’s calling policy, which allows a child a 10-minute phone call twice a week. Her sister is somewhere in the United States.
“I will look at it,” Johnson said with a smile, nodding. She leaned in, emphasizing that extending call times would be difficult because of the shelter’s approximate population of 1,300.
Tours of the facility almost never happen, and when they do, they’re strictly supervised. During Azar’s visit, a Miami Herald reporter was granted a visit, a month after the Trump administration announced it would shut down Tornillo, which has run through 6,200 Central American teens since June, and add 1,000 beds to the Florida facility.
No phones, cameras or video recordings were permitted, just pen and paper “to preserve the children’s privacy,” an HHS spokeswoman said. No questions could be asked of the children. The last time the Herald took a tour was in 2016, when the Obama administration opened the facility to house unaccompanied minors flooding the border.
The shelter, located at 920 Bouganville Road, is now the largest in the nation for undocumented unaccompanied minors. There are at least 100 smaller shelters across the country. Prior to closing Tornillo, more than 14,600 children were being held in government shelters, up from 9,200 when President Trump took office in 2017, the Washington Post reported.
The Homestead facility has been the site of massive protests after President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy was rolled out in April of last year, which led to nearly 3,000 children forcibly separated from their parents. Under the policy, adults who entered the country illegally were prosecuted while any children who accompanied them were detained in centers like the one in Homestead, often thousands of miles away from their family.
The Herald also toured a smaller shelter in Cutler Bay, Catholic Charities’ Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village, formerly called Boys Town. There, the federal government keeps babies, children under 13, pregnant girls or teens with special needs, housing about 80. The shelter began after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959 and thousands of unaccompanied Cuban children came to the United States during Operation Pedro Pan.
The third shelter is His House Children’s Home in Miami Gardens.
According to federal officials, none of the three Florida shelters are housing children who have been separated from their parents, just children who crossed the border alone.
In June of last year — two months after the family separations began — a federal judge in San Diego ordered the federal government to stop the border separations and reunite the children with their parents. A few days before the ruling, President Trump, facing a growing outcry, signed an executive order rescinding the policy.
Cmdr. Jonathan White, who oversaw the care of minors for HHS, testified at a congressional hearing Thursday that most of the children have been reunited.
“Of the 2,816 children that we were able to identify as separated, only six remain who might potentially still be reunified,” he testified before the hearing of the Committee on Energy and Commerce’s oversight subcommittee, according to USA Today.
Shoes that don’t ‘break’
Homestead, the children, like many kids, liked some things — and disliked other parts of their daily routine.
“I’m grateful to be here but the mattresses are too thin or too hard. Sometimes we wake up with neck aches, backaches and headaches,” one girl said.
Another teen, a 16-year-old girl from Guatemala, also jumped in: “I am so thankful for the soccer fields along with the clothes and shoes; if it wasn’t for them, I’d have nothing. But I do have to say, the shoes break easily and they break all the time.”
“We will certainly look into that,” Johnson said.
Azar crouched down to look at the teens’ non-branded shoes and continued to eat the lunch that was served to the bunch — fried fish, red beans and a rice pilaf partnered with two chocolate chip cookies, milk, water or juice.
“Oh and please, about the food here. It’s not that it’s bad, but our traditions are different,” one 15-year-old girl said in Spanish. “We’d like some diversity.”
The lunch in front of her and her peers remained almost untouched.
With a nod, Azar said he’d work on making some changes to the menu. “Any American foods you guys do like?”
A resounding “pizza” filled the room.
For some lawmakers and activists, “just because they are fed endless pizza and ice cream doesn’t mean they are free,” said Joshua Rubin, a New York software developer turned detention-camp watchdog.
“A golden cage is still a cage,” he said.
Rubin, 67, has been one of the loudest voices outside the Tornillo camp. After reading the news from home, the entrepreneur packed up, drove thousands of miles, slept in an RV for months and devoted himself to documenting what he saw from outside the camp. Rubin quickly climbed into the national spotlight after launching a Facebook page — Witness: Tornillo — with the goal of shutting down the Texas camp.
“It happened, and now our next target is Homestead,” Rubin told the Miami Herald Thursday.
Just minutes before that, Rubin was part of a press conference outside the Capitol in Washington where U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-California, along with Merkley, the Oregon Democratic senator, reintroduced the Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act, which he originally submitted in December to shut down Tornillo.
The bill, which is seeking more sponsors, would prohibit HHS “from maintaining or operating any temporary emergency shelter, including the shelters in Tornillo, Texas, and in Homestead, Florida.”
Homestead and Tornillo are the only two shelters in the country that are stationed on federal land and the only two dubbed “temporary emergency shelters.”
Temporary emergency shelters, according to federal officials, are any “unlicensed care provider facility that provides temporary emergency shelter and services for unaccompanied alien children when licensed facilities are near or at capacity.”
Being unlicensed means the facilities like Homestead don’t have to be certified by state authorities responsible for regulating facilities that house children. Temporary shelters also don’t have to comply with the 1997 “Flores Settlement,” which limits the length of time and conditions under which U.S. officials can detain families at family detention centers — 20 days. Those shelters are run by the Department of Children and Families.
Shelters for children, which are run by HHS, do not fall under the 20-day rule, HHS officials said.
“We don’t have a deadline on the timely manner,” an HHS spokeswoman said. “We work to get kids to a sponsor as soon as an appropriate sponsor is identified.“
The Flores Settlement also requires immigration officials to give the detained minors a certain quality of life, including food, drinking water, medical assistance in emergencies, toilets, sinks, temperature control, supervision and as much separation from unrelated adults as possible, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
“I am so pleased that the voice of this movement saying, ‘Close down this camp,’ worked. Tornillo is no more,” Merkley said. “Can we take this ‘Shut Down Tornillo’ movement and make it a ‘Shut Down Homestead’ movement as well?”
According to Merkley, the average time a migrant child was detained at Tornillo was close to 60 days. At Homestead, it’s 67 days as of Feb. 5, according to HHS. For unaccompanied minors at all shelters nationwide in December 2018, the average was 89 days, officials confirmed.
Contributing to the long delays was the Trump administration’s FBI fingerprint background check. Before a child could be transferred to the care of a relative or friend, every adult in that household had to be fingerprinted. However amid mounting pressure about the delays this created in releasing the children, the administration reversed course in December and now only requires the child’s main guardian to be backgrounded.
Florida has received the third-highest number of unaccompanied minors since 2014, totaling about 22,000. The minors have been placed with sponsors, usually relatives or close family friends, who live in the state.
According to HHS, the average daily cost to care for a child at a regular, non-temporary shelter is about $256 per day.
“The cost of temporary shelter capacity is significantly higher, because of the need to develop facilities quickly and hire significant staff over a short period of time,” said HHS spokeswoman Evelyn J. Stauffer. “Currently, the average daily cost to care for a child at an influx facility is approximately $775 per day based on our experience at Homestead.”
Per day, if at full capacity of 1,300, the Homestead shelter would cost $1,007,500 a day to operate.
Life at the shelter
One by one, the teens line up. One line is for girls, the other, for boys. They are put in order by age.
With towels, undergarments, clothes and shoes in hand, they are separated into small groups and enter the white shower stalls.
When they first arrive at the facility, they are given identification wristbands and clothes. The girls get the pink and purple shirts; the boys get the reds, blues and greens. They are also given shorts, sweat pants, sweatshirts, underwear, hygiene kits and a black duffel bag.
They then sanitize their hands and are taken to shower rooms.
The Homestead shelter began with about 200 migrant children when it first opened in 2016. It was intended to be a pit stop, to handle the overflow of youths awaiting an immigration hearing.
However, after reaching its initial capacity of 800, the shelter was expanded to it current levels of 1,300. HHS would not comment on whether they are expanding the facility to accommodate the additional 1,000 teens or just adding more beds.
The children are given three meals and two snacks a day — apples, crackers, milk, pudding (3,500 calories a day).
They’re also given medical care and attend school in classrooms. Counselors work with children who may have experienced mental, physical or sexual abuse as well as others who have escaped gang threats and extreme poverty. They are vaccinated and tested for tuberculosis. Each girl over 10 is given a pregnancy test.
The white circus-like tents, along with every concrete building, have an armed officer at every point. The tents, which are air-conditioned, are places for church services, talent shows and Xbox tournaments.
Every time a child enters or leaves a building, their bracelets are scanned.
That data is collected and sent to the shelter’s control room, equipped with about a dozen TV monitors. One screen showcases a map that tracks teens who are being transported to their sponsors’ homes. Each child is accompanied by a chaperone, whose phone and van is tracked via GPS in real-time.
Some pins can be seen traveling over the Atlantic Ocean, meaning the minor was on a flight to their destination. Other pins were traveling in the Northeast and Midwest.
Two other screens log the last entry point the teens scanned their bracelet. Other monitors show the weather patterns, population stats showing the fluctuating number of children at the facility and security footage.
During the first week of their stay, the children are assigned a bunk bed. The bunks are lined up inside a massive room, storage bins tucked under each bed. In the hallway, colorful cork boards with the daily schedule and activities adorn the walls. XBox consoles and board games are scattered about.
One art piece depicts a desert with cacti and a sunset horizon. In Spanish, another says, “Love is the only thing that grows when shared.” All around campus are fliers addressing sexual assault and bullying.
All kids attend ESOL, U.S. history, reading and writing classes at the facility. Wake-up time is 6 a.m. and lights go out at 10 p.m. Most staff members are bilingual.
After a few days, the children are transitioned out of the bunkers into small dorms in the Job Corps building. Each group of 12 is assigned a “team leader” during the night. In the day, the ratio is one staff member per every six teens.
For children at the smaller shelters like Children’s Village or His House, where infants, toddlers or pregnant girls are housed, there’s one staff member for every six children at night, and one for every four during the day. The staff members have shifts; supervision is 24/7.
“These kids are being told it’s a great place, like it’s a summer camp,” Rubin said. “What I see are kids having to be accompanied to the bathroom. Kids who not being able to wander from tent to tent, who can’t visit a friend or have any visitors. The only time there is evident joy is when they kick soccer balls high over the fence. They’re kicking soccer balls to freedom, not knowing when they’d ever have some.”
At the Children’s Village run by Catholic Charities, rosaries hang from the children’s bunk beds. One handmade craft says, “Te amo Mamá,” Spanish for “I love you, Mom.”
“It’s okay, your mom is coming soon,” one woman said to the toddler, who then dried her tears and waved at a reporter.
“I’m so glad I got to see the shelters in person. A Chinese admiral once said: ‘You can be briefed or read about something a dozen times — or, you can see it once,’ ” said Jonathan Hayes, acting director and chief of staff of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“I’m very proud of our shelters,” he told a reporter. “You saw, those kids are happy.”
But once those kids hit their 18th birthday, their surroundings take a quick shift.
According to Lisa Lehner, an attorney for nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice, on a teen’s 18th birthday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows up with handcuffs.
“The boys are handcuffed in three-point restraints: wrists cuffed and then attached at the waist, and feet shackles,” Lehner said. “The girls typically at the feet only.”
Lehner represents the migrants who have “aged out” of shelters like Homestead by filing petitions in federal court to get them released. She says almost all the 18-year-olds are taken to the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach. She says the nonprofit is dealing with “historic numbers of age-outs.”
According to data compiled by Americans for Immigrant Justice, the Homestead shelter sent 21 teens to the Broward detention center last month:
|Month||Year||# of children|
“The atmosphere in adult detention is very different than at the shelter. Boys are put in orange jumpsuits, girls in brown,” Lehner said. “They are housed with adults, not just kids only.”
Shelters like Homestead provide schooling; the adult centers do not.
Most of the kids who are placed in ICE custody do have sponsors, family members — parents even — and friends, but for a variety of reasons, they were not able to go to the sponsor while in the shelter.
“In some cases, the time of release after they are at BTC is short, and some not,” Lehner said in an email. “This can depend on factors such as how diligent the deportation officer is in contacting the sponsor and arranging for the release, whether the sponsor has the funds available to provide for the child’s release (air or train fare).”
Some of the deportation officers do not speak Spanish, which can be an obstacle since all of the kids are from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.
“In addition to individual sponsors, we have been successful in locating group homes around the country that take the kids, but ICE never does this, even though the law requires them to seek alternatives to detention,” Lehner said, noting that there are two federal statutes that say when a child turns 18, it’s the responsibility of ICE to find the “least restrictive setting” for them to take residence if they are going to be staying in the country. This process is called “a post-18 plan.”
Instead, Lehner says ICE places them them in the “most restrictive setting.”
ICE was not immediately available for comment from the Miami Herald Thursday.
In 2017, a Homestead woman employed as a youth care worker at the Homestead shelter admitted to sending sexually explicit photos of herself to a 15-year-old who had been at the shelter, getting a pornographic video of the boy and requesting that he visit her in Miami for sex.
In June, a 15-year Honduran immigrant girl — who for three weeks had been held at the shelter — escaped from the care of facility workers who were taking her to a routine doctor’s appointment Friday morning. She was eventually found and returned to the shelter.
Protesters are expected to flood Homestead in the coming weeks, advocates say.
“We have to attack it on all fronts , on the legislative side and on the ground,” Rubin said. “The good thing is that we don’t have to start from scratch like with Tornillo. Homestead is in the national spotlight. It’s now front and center.”