HHS confirmed the denial to access.
“We have had significant interest for facility visits. To ensure a facility visit does not interfere with the safety and well-being of our [children], we require a minimum two-week notification at the convenience and availability of the facility. This has been policy since 2015,” the department told the Miami Herald in a statement Saturday.
But Schultz, Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell said their denial is “illegal,” referencing Section 234 of bill 115-245 (the 2019 Department of Health and Human Services Appropriations Act), which was amended this year to say members of Congress can’t be prevented from “entering, for the purpose of conducting oversight, any U.S. facility used for maintaining custody of or otherwise housing unaccompanied alien children.”
HHS did not comment on their rebuttal when asked multiple times by the Miami Herald.
“During our last visit to Homestead, we witnessed children living in cramped, prison-like conditions,” the joint statement said, referring to a tour of the facility earlier this year. “The idea to force even more children into an already full detention facility is not only unsafe, but is cruel and violates basic tenets of human decency.”
The move to bar the congresswomen in comes days after the government announced it would be expanding the facility to detain as many as 3,600 children there— a population larger than Homestead High School.
In a recent four-page letter written to Congress by the Department of Homestead Security, the agency’s director said the “overwhelming” population at the border has caused a “system-wide meltdown” and cited her concerns over over inadequate staffing, space and other services there.
“Denying entry to oversee the conditions and care provided to the unaccompanied children in the Homestead facility would not only be a breach of transparency and confidence in the care provided there, it would violate the law,” the lawmakers said in a statement Saturday.
“A similar denial of access occurred there a year ago, and Congress specifically addressed it by ensuring members would have unencumbered access to such facilities to conduct our constitutionally mandated oversight responsibilities.”
Lawmakers are a regular presence at the Homestead facility, which reopened in June 2018 as the Trump administration pushed a policy of separating children from their parents when they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally together.
Former Sen. Bill Nelson, Rep. Kionne McGhee and Wasserman Schultz, all Democrats, tried to enter the facility shortly after it was reopened but were denied access.
“The company running this facility told us we would be welcomed to tour the facility,” Nelson said on Twitter. “HHS then denied us entry and said that they need ‘two weeks notice’ to allow us inside. That’s ridiculous, and it’s clear this administration is hiding something.”
A few days later, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was allowed into the facility and a host of Democrats visited a day later. But the facility denied Mucarsel-Powell’s predecessor, Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, from visiting by himself in July 2018. Curbelo managed to get in a few weeks later.
“Given long-held concerns about the Homestead facility’s lack of staffing, space, education and other services, the recent announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services that it will dramatically expand the number of beds there merits immediate scrutiny,” the congresswomen’s statement said. “The Department’s initial refusal to allow entry there under these current circumstances is deeply troubling.”