No hugs, kids cutting themselves: Court gets unprecedented peek inside Homestead shelter

A 705-page court document filed by lawyers who spent substantial time inside Homestead’s detention center for unaccompanied minors says the migrant children held there are subjected to “prison-like” regimens, potentially sustaining permanent psychological damage due to isolation from loved ones.

Based on interviews with detainees, the filing describes dumbfounded and despairing children, cut off from their relatives except for phone calls, enduring “military-camp” style conditions and stays that often stretch into months.

It is by far the most detailed description of life inside the secretive detention center, although the stories are relayed through the prism of adults advocates who want to see the children moved to smaller settings — the number of children in the facility is 2,350 and growing — or released to the care of family or other guardians.

“I interviewed many children that were in such distress that they cut themselves,” attorney Neha Desai told the Miami Herald. She was one of several attorneys who was allowed to interview children away from the camp operators.

She recounted the story of a 14-year-old girl from Honduras whose mom died from cancer when the girl was 8.

“Her aunt took over as her parent. Years later they crossed the border together, but were forcibly separated,” Desai said of the girl, who said she had been detained for eight months at the time of the interview. “The girl was never told where she was being taken or why. Her aunt was placed in ICE [Immigrant and Customs Enforcement] detention elsewhere while her niece was taken to Homestead… .She started to cut herself.”

The children in the filing are described but not identified by name.

The lengthy document was filed in a California court as part of an effort to demonstrate that the federal government is violating the Flores Agreement.

Dating back to 1997, The Flores Agreement commits the federal government to follow a policy that favors having migrant children released to parents, other relatives, guardians or licensed programs. It also limits to 20 days the length of time children can remain at a detention center.

The agreement requires immigration officials to afford detained minors certain basics, 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.

Beyond enforcement of the Flores agreement, some advocates ultimately hope to force closure of the Homestead center, which quietly opened during the Obama administration and was phased out only to be reopened and expanded last year under President Donald Trump.

A peek inside the temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Homestead. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Joshua Rubin, a lead protester who spearheaded the shutdown of a shuttered Tornillo, Texas, children’s shelter, said he hopes the court case “brings to end this brutal regime.”

The Department of Health and Human Services under President Trump has said Homestead can skirt the 20-day maximum because Homestead is considered an “emergency and temporary influx center.”

“We don’t have a deadline on the timely manner,” an HHS spokeswoman told the Miami Herald earlier this year. “We work to get kids to a sponsor as soon as an appropriate sponsor is identified.”

The detention center for unaccompanied minors is the largest of its kind in the nation and the only one run by a private operator. Wedged between the Homestead Air Reserve Base and South Florida’s former site for a program called Job Corps, it’s supposed to house only teenage children who arrived unaccompanied by a parent. However, the court documents suggest that some kids may be preteens and others may have been separated at the border from their parents.

In the court document, lawyers, scholars and doctors allege that the children have been detained at the center for prolonged periods of time, causing “irrevocable mental and physical harm.”

The filing says that since May of last year, when the shelter was reactivated, more than half of the kids held at the center have been detained for more than 20 days.

“[Children’s] length of detention at Homestead is far from temporary” and therefore unduly harmful, the filing states. It was submitted by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, the National Center for Youth Law, the University of California Davis School of Law, the Youth Law Center, the Law Foundation of SiIicon Valley and La Raza Centro Legal.

“That harm can be avoided if the government complies with the terms of the [Flores] settlement and within 20 days transfers minors to licensed facilities if they cannot be released to a parent or sponsor,” the filing states. It calls on the court to force the government to “promptly make and record continuous efforts aimed at the release of minors,” something advocates say has been poorly tracked.

The Homestead center is unlicensed, meaning it doesn’t have to be certified or inspected by state or local authorities.

“These children are battling a sense of deep helplessness and sheer frustration and confusion on why they don’t know anything or on why they are still detained,” Desai said. “It’s profoundly distressing for them and something needs to be done.”

The attorneys told the court that in most cases the children had willing sponsors waiting for them — including up the road in Miami. Some detainees said their cases still weren’t being processed three months after arrival. Others said they were promised they would be reunited with their parents in Texas but instead were kept for at least three months.

Asked for comment Saturday, the HHS issued the following statement: ‘[The Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of HHS] has worked aggressively to meet its responsibility, by law, to provide shelter for unaccompanied children referred to its care by the Department of Homeland Security while we work to find a suitable sponsor in the U.S.

“Since opening in March 2018 over 12,000 [unaccompanied minors] have been placed at the site and more than 9,700 have been discharged to a suitable sponsor [usually a parent or close family relative].”

The government has argued that it is responding as best it can to an unprecedented influx at the border with Mexico.

In February, girls rest after playing soccer at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. Wilfredo Lee AP

However, the court filing says the government has prolonged the process of uniting children with families by sharing biometric and biological information, including fingerprints, with federal, state or local law enforcement, to determine immigration status and criminal history of individuals who step forward as potential sponsors, often leading to the detainment or deportation of those individuals.

In a statement filed with the motion, Dr. Marsha R. Griffin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, wrote. “We are not providing safe haven. Instead, we are participating in child abuse and neglect.”


The filing states that about 55 percent of those processed through the shelter are from Guatemala and about 27 percent from Honduras. It says about 14 percent originated in El Salvador while only 1 percent hail from Mexico.

The court filing describes a daily routine that stipulates no hugging, no touching, no lending clothes, no taking food to the bunk room.

It quotes one teenager, who states: “Sometimes when your friend is crying because they can’t stand being here any longer, you want to be able to give them a hug. But you can’t because it’s against the rules. ... There are cameras here watching us.”

Showers are limited to five minutes, the filing says, with 15 minutes allotted for meals — single file lines at all times.

No water or bathroom breaks without permission, the filing asserts, and a counselor in a red hat is always with you.

There are two telephone calls a week of 10 minutes to communicate with family members — if they answer.

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Migrant children are escorted through the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on Good Friday, April 19, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

“It’s disappointing because I can’t even access the phone to talk to my mom today on my birthday,” one child told an attorney.

Said another: “I’m only allowed to talk to my mom for five minutes and my grandpa for five minutes. That’s not really enough time to say more than a quick hello and make sure she’s OK.”

The motion recites several interviews and cites various studies, including one from The New England Journal of Medicine, as well as opinions from scholars and experts, to argue that the minors are being harmed. It describes children who feel isolated as a result of their native dialects, and recounts how children have their pens and pencils taken away so that they cannot cut themselves in the dark of their dormitories.

A 16-year-old from Guatemala told attorneys he was was apprehended with his father on June 10, 2018, and had been at Homestead for 46 days when the interview took place.

“I can’t leave this facility. People who try to escape are always caught, and my friends tell me that if you are caught, you get sent to another place…,” the teen says. “There are gates and walls that surround this place.”

The lawyers say children are told they will be arrested by local police and ICE and deported if they try to run away.

Said one child, according to the court filing: “If we don’t follow the rules or pay attention to the youth counselors, they said we would get a report. If you get a report, you’ll end up spending more time here.”

In the filing, advocates described the bathrooms as “unsanitary” and the rugs as redolent of mildew.

Undocumented migrant youths line up at the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied migrant children on May 6, 2019. A recent court filing says the regimen is prison-like and harmful. Wilfredo Lee AP

The court document recounts a statement by the detention center’s program coordinator, Bernadine Leslie Wood, who purportedly described the children’s daily experience as akin to “a slumber party.”

As many as 144 children sleep in a one-room barrack with noisy fans. Wood said that children have the opportunity to ask for earplugs, but that none have.

“Children we interviewed universally disagreed with Wood,” one lawyer writes.

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.