Immigration

Good Friday brings protests — but no apparent changes — at shelter for migrant youths

Activists gather outside of Homestead shelter for migrant children on Good Friday

Protesters gather outside of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on Good Friday in Homestead, Florida, on April 19, 2019.
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Protesters gather outside of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on Good Friday in Homestead, Florida, on April 19, 2019.

Despite another day of spirited protests demanding closure of the Homestead center for unaccompanied minors — this time coinciding with Good Friday and the imminent start of Passover — the sprawling facility isn’t going anywhere.

Neither are the detainees.

Nor, seemingly, is the company that runs it.

The contract with Comprehensive Health Services, operator of the center that currently houses more than 2,000 migrant children, was scheduled to expire on Saturday, at least according to usaspending.gov, a government database that tracks spending.

Instead, it appeared to be business as usual Friday. Documents show the government could extend out the contract as far as Oct. 19, in part because of the government’s decisions to expand the number of beds. There have been 16 contractual alterations, records show, many of which have been requests to push back contract end dates.

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Migrant children play soccer inside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children during Good Friday in Homestead, Florida on April 19, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

It’s unclear if the government is looking to renew with Comprehensive Health or whether it is seeking a new service provider. Government officials told the Herald they would post that information once the issue has been decided.

Both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement would not comment on the status of the current contract other than to say officials are “currently finalizing the award to continue operations at the Homestead Temporary Influx facility.”

“ORR has no additional information to provide regarding the award at this time,” the Office of Refugee Resettlement said in an email Friday.

In the past few months, the shelter has increased its capacity from about 1,000 to 3,200 — an increase coinciding with heightened immigration rhetoric from the president’s office and the Department of Homeland Security bracing for what it called an unprecedented number of children crossing through Central America and Mexico to the border without parents. It’s possible that the capacity will expand again, federal officials have said.

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Madelyn Moyer, 35, bottom-center, yells alongside a group of activists protesting the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children during Good Friday in Homestead, Florida on April 19, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Comprehensive Health, based in Cape Canaveral, is owned by the private equity firm DC Capital Partners. Comprehensive Health is a subsidiary under another DC Capital-owned company, Caliburn International.

Last month, Caliburn had planned to sell up to $100 million in an initial public stock offering. However, amid controversy over President Trump’s immigration policies, the company announced in a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it would cancel that plan.

Now, according to the Financial Times, DC Capital is looking to sell a 75 percent stake in Caliburn, which has grown rapidly by acquiring and combining several government contractors. The publication reported that the documents accompanying the sale warned potential investors that the company operates “in a number of challenging and politically charged environments” and outlined how it got negative press about its work with unaccompanied minors — defined as any child who crosses the border illegally without a biological parent.

The spotlight fell on the company again recently when John Kelly, the president’s former chief of staff and the onetime head of the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, was spotted entering the facility on a golf cart. Previously, Kelly was employed as a lobbyist for DC Capital Partners through a subsidiary, but he has said he cut ties when he joined the Trump administration.

Kelly, now a private citizen, has not responded to phone calls and messages from the Miami Herald asking whether he has reconnected with Caliburn.

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Migrant children are escorted throughout the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children during Good Friday in Homestead, Florida on April 19, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

The Homestead shelter is the only for-profit child detention center in the country, as well as the largest in the nation. According to HHS, as of earlier this month, the average daily cost to care for one child at an influx facility like Homestead is approximately $775 per day. The average daily cost at a regular non-temporary shelter is about $256 per day, per child.

On Good Friday, dozens of religious congregations and at least 100 protesters gathered outside the shelter “to be a witness.”

“It just felt like with the convergence of these two holy days, this was the perfect time for our congregants to be out here,” said Diane Shoaf, a Presbyterian minister and co-chair of the Miami Clergy Dialogue.

“Regretfully, I don’t think we’ve been as activated here as we should be, so what better day to start than on one of the holiest days of my tradition.”

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Tom Southern, 68, center, gathers with a group of activists protesting the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children during Good Friday in Homestead, Florida on April 19, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

As the only temporary emergency shelter in the country, the Homestead center is exempt from federal regulations limiting how long authorities can hold migrant children, which normally is 20 days.

The average stay at the Homestead shelter was 67 days as of Feb. 5, officials said, although some lawmakers question that figure because they’ve met children who have been there for more than eight months.

Because HHS classifies it as a temporary emergency shelter, the facility is not subject to inspection by state child welfare regulators, who normally inspect shelters for children.

Holding a megaphone, protester Irene Martinez, loudly chanted in Spanish ”you are not alone!” at teens who played soccer behind a chain-link fence. The boys paused and waved back.

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Migrant children wave at protestors while being escorted throughout the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children during Good Friday in Homestead, Florida on April 19, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

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