Pastors defend Homestead detention center as it maneuvers to improve public perception

South Dade pastor Russell Black  (center) is accompanied by various area ministers and religious volunteers. The group help a news conference outside the Homestead detention center Friday.
South Dade pastor Russell Black (center) is accompanied by various area ministers and religious volunteers. The group help a news conference outside the Homestead detention center Friday.

In a break with churches and synagogues that have consistently criticized the detention of immigrant children at a facility in Homestead, a small group of pastors held a press conference Friday to defend the center as a place where minors are treated well.

“We are correcting the record,” said lead organizer and pastor Russell Black. “At no time during our four years on this property have we heard of, seen, or experienced any degree of abuse, neglect or mistreatment of these children. To the contrary, we have seen a staff of employees, managers and volunteers providing the best care possible for these kids.”

Under a drizzling rain, Black stood among a handful of other pastors and leaders from different ministries across the county. Many of them are some of 24 rotating volunteers that provide six church services at the Homestead detention center on Saturdays. Several have been volunteering since the center opened up under President Barack Obama in 2016.

“This is almost like a summer camp,” Black said as his peers nodded. “Please hear me, I’m not saying it’s a summer camp, but what I’m saying is that as much as possible, everything we’ve seen, what they’ve done with these kids, under the conditions and the limitations they have, they’ve made this the most pleasant experience these kids could have.”

In the past few months local and state politicians, as well as Democratic presidential candidates, have said the migrant children held in Homestead are subjected to “prison-like” regimens, potentially sustaining permanent psychological damage due to isolation from loved ones after hundreds of court documents revealed that children were cutting themselves and crying themselves to sleep.

The pastors refuted those claims, and spoke of a facility that is clean, fun and safe.

“When they come into the property, the first thing they go through is medical and emotional evaluations. They are grouped up with other kids to help them in the transition, given new clothing, given two pairs of shoes, given nice places to sleep, air-conditioned buildings to sleep in.”

Another pastor added in Spanish: “They have Xbox; many have never even seen an Xbox. They have conference rooms. Volleyball, football. They are separated by gender. There are many rumors about sexual abuse inside. That’s not true. They are taken care of. What we see is a very professional, specialized job being done by the U.S. government.”

The company contracted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to operate the shelter, Caliburn, had a representative at the news conference. When asked if Caliburn played a role in facilitating the meeting, the man directed a reporter to Caliburn’s spokesperson.

“I want to make clear, [Caliburn hasn’t] told us what to say in any way, shape or form,” Black said as he ended the conference. “We are here 100 percent speaking our own words in our own way at our own expense.”

Although it’s not clear if Caliburn coordinated with the religious leaders, the company has made efforts recently in the south Miami-Dade area to improve the public image of the detention center.

Records show the company joined the South Dade Chamber of Commerce a few weeks ago. Black’s wife, Kerry Black, is the chamber’s CEO.

Online, the chamber lists Caliburn as a member and features an extended promotional profile on the company. The Chamber did not return phone calls from the Miami Herald Friday. It’s unclear how much Caliburn donated in order to become a member, but memberships online show companies with more than 100 employees pay a minimum of $10,000.

The company has also made stops at Homestead city hall, email records show. About two weeks ago a Caliburn employee asked to meet with the mayor and council in order to “provide facts to correct misperceptions,” a city spokesman told the Herald Friday.

“It’s great to have those from the local community visit the site and leave with a good understanding as to what we do at the shelter and the services we provide the children,” Keith Rigdon, Caliburn’s vice president of humanitarian and immigration services, said in an email to a Homestead city official. “However, it is not as is depicted by the media. So we appreciate your kind words on our shelters operation and hope that you will spread the good news to those who haven’t seen the shelter and its operations.“

In an email to another city leader, Caliburn CEO Jim Van Dusen asked the town for help.

“Unfortunately, our company and the good work we are doing at the HHS facility has been mischaracterized,” Van Dusen wrote. “ We are working closely with our client at HHS to provide fact based responses to the false and inaccurate media reports. I would very appreciate any guidance or insights you can provide to me and my team. “

Attached in the email was a “Caliburn fact sheet” with several bullet points, many of which were mentioned at Friday’s pastors’ press conference.

“I see signs out here that say ‘free the children,’ “ said Giselle Delgado, who helps lead a ministry called Hope 4 Life. “They are not detained because they are being bad, they are detained because they are protecting them.”

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.