Did Trump administration break law by blocking Florida reps from entering migrant shelter?

Three Florida congresswomen were sent home Monday after attempting to inspect the Homestead child detention center.

On Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Donna Shalala, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, South Florida’s three Democratic representatives, had requested to visit the shelter on Monday. They wanted to inspect the facility, which houses about 2,000 unaccompanied migrant children, after the government announced last week it would expand the center to detain as many as 3,200 children.

“At this point, it is unclear what new structures or accommodations are being made to adequately house the additional children,” said Mucarsel-Powell, whose Congressional district includes Homestead. “There remains a major lack of transparency about what is occurring within the facility’s walls.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the privately run facility, said it needed two weeks’ notice to allow lawmakers into the facility and refused them entry, citing its 2015 policy.

“To ensure a facility visit does not interfere with the staff’s ability to provide for the safety, well-being or privacy of unaccompanied alien children, especially during a period of high influx such as the present, we require a minimum two-week notification for the facility visit,” an HHS spokesperson said. “This has been HHS policy since 2015. It meets our current statutory obligation to provide members of Congress with facility access.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), center, walks with Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), right, and Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), left, toward an office to request access to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children in Homestead, Florida on Monday, April 8, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

The congresswomen, however, called the agency’s denial “illegal,” citing recently passed legislation, signed by President Donald Trump, that prohibits HHS from denying lawmakers from entering a facility to conduct oversight.

After being blocked by armed security guards, Wasserman Schultz took out her cell phone and recited, verbatim, Section 234 of bill 115-245.

“It is federal law, and if you don’t allow us us access, you’re in violation of federal law,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Echoed Shalala: “This is the law of the land.”

The guard directed the lawmakers to the shelter’s director, who reiterated that access would not be granted.

HHS would not comment on the conflicting mandates but said its 2105 policy reigns.

Some experts disagree, however.

Lou Fisher, a scholar in residence at the Constitution Project who previously worked at the Library of Congress specializing in the separation of powers between Congress and the White House, said the legislation passed by Congress does not give wiggle room for HHS to prevent lawmakers from visiting facilities.

From left to right: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL) and Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL) walk toward the media after being denied entrance to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children by the Trump administration in Homestead, Florida on Monday, April 8, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

“I don’t see that the statutory language would bar entry to lawmakers,” Fisher said.

Scott R. Anderson, a former U.S. diplomat and international lawyer, as well as a former attorney-advisor for the U.S. Department of State and legal advisor for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said “it’s not an entirely settled legal question.”

“I don’t see why Congress couldn’t just direct HHS to give it access to certain facilities,” Anderson said. “The President could probably set up some basic limitations for the sake of orderly management, pursuant to his constitutional authority as chief executive. But two weeks is a long time and keeping an old policy in place despite new legislation like this does push any such argument to the limit of credibility...HHS is probably on the wrong side of the argument.”

In a statement Monday, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Democratic member of Congress who chairs the House subcommittee that funds HHS, said she’s considering legal action.

“There should be nothing to hide at these facilities, yet HHS has continued to throw up roadblocks and promote ill-conceived reasons to keep Members of Congress out,” DeLauro said in a statement. “As such, I am examining all legal remedies along with Congresswomen Wasserman Schultz, Shalala, and Mucarsel-Powell. This will not stand.”

From left to right: Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) speak to the media after being denied entrance to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children by the Trump administration in Homestead, Florida on Monday, April 8, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

None of the lawmakers would specify what those legal actions may be.

The day after the representatives requested to tour the shelter, John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff and the former head of the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, was spotted entering the Homestead facility on a golf cart.

The company that runs the shelter, the only for-profit child detention center in the country, once employed Kelly as a lobbyist. He said he cut ties with the company when he joined the Trump administration.

“Earlier this week, Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly was seen visiting the facility that HHS is refusing to let us into,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

She also noted “the facility is not certified by the state, and state child welfare agencies do not inspect the facility. There have been several allegations of sexual assault coming from the facility since its reopening under this administration.”

Last month, Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, released data provided to him by HHS that showed that thousands of migrant children have been sexually abused while being detained at U.S. government-run shelters.

The documents showed that more than 1,000 allegations of sexual abuse of unaccompanied minors were reported to the Office of Refugee Resettlement every fiscal year since 2015. The allegations include rape, sexual assault and harassment.

It’s unclear how many of those allegations came from the Homestead shelter.

Miami Herald staff writer Alex Daughtery contributed to this report.
Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.