How a stepladder in Homestead became South Florida’s most important political prop

This might be the hardest-working stepladder in South Florida.

For the past few days, the worn four-step ladder standing across the street from the Homestead detention center has been a key prop for politicians big and small trying to make a point about the child migrant shelter.

Every few hours, a politician mounts the stepladder, stands on top, waves at migrant children walking in single-file lines across the street, tells the press how the “broken immigration system” would be fixed if they were president, gets back in their car and carries on with their day.

On Thursday, when it was his turn, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke went slightly off script, addressing the children directly in their native tongue.

Saludos! Los vemos y los queremos!” he yelled in Spanish, which translates to “Greetings. We see you and we love you.”

O’Rourke is just one of the presidential hopefuls, in Miami for the Democratic debates, to get in on the action of what has now been burned into the 2020 campaign trail: the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors, which currently detains about 3,000 kids. Less than an hour before O’Rourke’s visit, Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also made appearances.

The second stepladder from the left, the tallest of the bunch, has been used by politicians who want to take a look at the children’s immigration shelter across the street in Homestead.

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, activist-actress Alyssa Milano and Jane O’Meara Sanders, the senator’s wife, paid visits. All were denied entry into the shelter itself, as was California Congressman Eric Swalwell when he visited Monday. Friday’s visitors included U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and author Marianne Williamson.

The Trump administration said none of the candidates arranged for a visit inside the shelter, something they could have done in advance. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Caliburn, the private company that runs the facility, said that the agency needs two weeks’ notice to allow lawmakers into the facility, citing a 2015 policy. Members of Congress have called the agency’s denial for entry “illegal,” citing recently passed legislation, signed by President Donald Trump, that prohibits HHS from denying lawmakers from entering a facility to conduct oversight.

“To ensure a facility visit does not interfere with the safety and well-being of our UACs, we require a minimum two week notification at the convenience and availability of the facility,” the Office of Refugee Resettlement said in an email Thursday.

After standing on the stepladder, Sanders, alongside droves of reporters and advocates, trekked up the road outside the facility to the guard gate and asked to be let in. He was referred to Caliburn personnel, and ultimately denied entry.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke shouts for the attention of the migrant children in the shelter across the street in Homestead on June 27, 2019. Daniel A. Varela

Actually seeing how the children in the shelter are cared for isn’t entirely the point. For presidential candidates, the largest temporary child shelter in the country is the perfect photo-op for a campaign against the administration’s treatment of immigrant families.

Caliburn has complained in a statement, saying the politicians have come “to the Homestead temporary emergency shelter not to find out more about the shelter, but to use it as a political, campaign stop.”

Before leaving the property, Sanders was met outside by Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cruz introduced Sanders to a 14-year-old girl, who identified herself only as Leah, from Miami-Dade who gave him a handwritten note as tears streamed down her face. She told him she lives in fear every day that her parents, who are undocumented immigrants, will be deported especially now that immigration authorities are preparing a deportation crackdown as early as next week.

“My mom is undocumented and I’m scared of losing her,” the girl said. Sanders thanked her for her bravery and assured her: “We’ll do our best to make sure you are reunited with your family very soon.”

Before that exchange happened, de Blasio took his position on the ladder, binoculars in hand, and peered over the fenced horizon.

“This is an American tragedy. This is something that’s almost impossible to believe that’s happening in our time and in our name,” he said. “This is not what the American people signed up for: somehow treating innocent kids like prisoners.”

Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio uses binoculars as he tries to spot the migrant children across the road during a visit to the Homestead detention center on June 27, 2019. Daniel A. Varela

The comparison of Homestead to a “prison” stems from a 705-page court document filed last month by lawyers who spent substantial time inside the center. The report said the migrant children inside are subjected to “prison-like” regimens, potentially sustaining permanent psychological damage due to isolation from loved ones.

HHS, the Office of Refugee Resettlement and Caliburn have responded that the comments are “a false and deceptive description to mislead the public and score political points.”

Caliburn went as far as sending a letter to the U.S. Senate with an invitation to tour the facility.

“On behalf of senior management and the Board of Directors of Caliburn International, I am writing to you to correct the record,” the letter says. “With the permission of our client, ORR, we would welcome the opportunity to host you for a tour of the facility so that you can witness firsthand the compassionate care we provide to these children in need.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement told the Miami Herald on Thursday it would grant the lawmakers permission if requested at least two weeks in advance. The agency also emailed the media a “Myth vs. Fact” sheet.

Myth: Homestead is a ‘prison-like’ facility,” the agency wrote Thursday. “Fact: Children at Homestead live in hard-sided dormitories, have access to dining halls, educational classrooms, indoor and outdoor recreational spaces and fields, and on-site medical facilities.”

But the president’s abrupt announcement last month that the government would dramatically cut aid to detention centers that house migrant children who arrive in the United States unaccompanied by their parents has drawn skepticism about the Homestead shelter’s treatment of the children.

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

“They are deprived of basic freedoms. They are living under lock-and-key conditions with guards constantly on watch. They cannot leave freely,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who has visited the facility five times. ”The regimented schedules, the prohibition of interaction and even touching between the children, the barracks-style sleeping conditions, and the overall suffering make this a prison-like setting in every way but in name. They are keeping these children from their families that are in the U.S. To me that is a prison.”

Recent budget cuts have meant that the young detainees no longer get recess time, nor access to any sort of education. Going forward, they will no longer be assisted by attorneys, ORR told the Herald.

The candidates that participated in Homestead’s political roundup Thursday echoed many of the same ideas on how to move forward on national immigration policies: decriminalize border crossings, shut down detention centers and prisons run by for-profit companies, and deal with the underlying “root causes” in the immigrants’ native countries.

“In the first week of my presidency, we will bring together the presidents of the Central American countries, the president of Mexico to figure out how as a hemisphere we are going to address this issue,” Sanders said.

O’Rourke told the Herald his first actions are taking place “right now.”

“I’m here, right now,” O’Rourke said, pointing at the detention facility. Advocates say O’Rourke was key in efforts to shut down a similar child detention facility in Tornillo, Texas, early this year.

“That public pressure really works,” he said from the ladder. “And that is what all of this is — public pressure.”

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.