Already a lightning rod in the national fight over immigration policy, a detention center for unaccompanied migrant children in Homestead is once again expanding to shelter the growing number of teenagers in federal custody.
The government announced this week that an old 75-acre Job Corps campus reopened last year as a youth center for children detained at the border will grow again in April to more than double the capacity that existed at the beginning of the year. By the end of the month, the Office of Refugee Resettlement intends to house as many as 3,200 children at the “temporary” center — creating a compound able to accommodate 300 more teenagers than Homestead Senior High.
The 850-bed expansion — the second in 2019 — comes amid heightened immigration rhetoric from President Donald Trump and as the Department of Homeland Security braces for what it’s calling an unprecedented number of children crossing through Central America and Mexico to the border without parents. In announcing the move, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees refugee resettlement, explained that it is planning for an extended period in which it will need to care for a larger number of youths.
“Based on the anticipated growth pattern in referrals,” the agency stated, “HHS is preparing for the need for high-bed capacity to continue.”
Health and Human Services stresses that none of the roughly 2,000 children housed today in Homestead nor any of the children expected to occupy the new beds were separated from their families under a hardline immigration policy that began and ended last year. The agency also said it is not expanding the Homestead facility to accommodate children who were previously sheltered at the now closed child detention center in Tornillo, Texas — previously the only other “temporary” child migrant shelter in the country.
But the continued expansion of the center in Homestead all but guarantees that the complex will remain a national symbol of the fight over Trump’s hardline immigration stance well into 2019 and likely the 2020 campaign.
If anything, it could be a bigger flash point.
“Instead of expanding Homestead, we need to swiftly adopt policies that speed up release and reunifications, promote sponsors to come forward without fear of legal repercussions, and ensure adequate staffing and resources for young people,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said in a statement. “The longer solution is passing sensible immigration reform.”
First converted from a Job Corps site into a migrant child shelter with room for 850 under former President Barack Obama, the center will soon handle nearly four times that capacity. In January, federal officials announced that they were expanding the facility’s capacity from 1,350 to 2,350. And this month, they’ll expand the capacity again by another 850 beds.
The Homestead center has housed a total of around 8,300 children since Trump reopened it a year ago to help alleviate the stress on federal resources caused by a short-lived policy to remove children from their parents’ custody at the southern border, according to HHS.
Younger migrant children in federal custody who are sent to Miami end up in smaller shelters run by faith-based organizations. But many teenagers end up in the center after fleeing gangs and poverty in Central America. The Office of Refugee Resettlement says there were about 2,000 children between the ages of 13 and 17 at the shelter by April 1, about three-quarters of them boys.
The government, meanwhile, says the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border could top the peak of what the country saw under Obama. About 32,000 children have been transferred into HHS custody since October, an increase of 50 percent over the same period a year ago and a pace that would surpass the 59,000 children referred to the agency in 2016.
Immigration advocates said Wednesday that shelters like the one in Homestead play an important role in the process of finding suitable homes and the families of children who make the long trip through Central America and Mexico to the southern border. But they worried that children are poorly served by larger facilities and said they’re concerned that children in shelters — where there have been reports of thousands of sexual assaults — receive adequate care.
“We do understand that when the numbers go up they do need to have a place where they can house children for a short period of time,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense. “However, we do have concerns about the facilities in that they tend to be very large and institutional. They’re not set up necessarily to meet the needs of this very unique population.”
Young said Trump’s immigration policies are creating longer stays for children in shelters like Homestead, where HHS says the average child spends 52 days from beginning to end. Wasserman Schultz, for instance, said a Trump administration policy of sending to Immigration and Customs Enforcement the fingerprints of sponsors who come to take the children from federal custody has made some family members “too terrified to come forward as sponsors for these young people at Homestead.”
The vast majority of children in migrant detention centers come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — so-called “Northern Triangle” countries to which Trump is cutting off U.S. financial assistance. Trump has also waffled on a threat to close border crossings with Mexico, an act that child migrant advocates worry would only exacerbate an already stressful and dangerous situation for thousands of children trying to enter the U.S. and potentially complicate the process of seeking asylum.
Young said shelters work best “only on a short-term basis.”
“Otherwise,” she said, “it’s not a good model.”
The Homestead center has already been the site of repeated visits from senators and House members, and was recently a backdrop for immigration protests. Last month, protesters who pressured the federal government to shut down its tent city in Tornillo turned their focus on the Homestead center, which is run by a for-profit company and exempt from local and state oversight due to its location on federal land and its “temporary” status.