Homestead immigrant detention center moves kids out to prepare for hurricane season

Satellite image of a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico on July 10.
Satellite image of a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico on July 10. AFP/Getty Images

The Homestead detention center for immigrant children is shedding kids by the hundreds in order to meet hurricane safety standards, government officials told a visiting delegation Friday.

Just in the past week, the center has released more than 450 children, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services staff told Amnesty International during a tour of the facility.

“They are aiming to get the population down to 1,200 in case of a hurricane, “ Margaret Huang, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, told the Miami Herald. “They said that’s the safe number in the event of a Category 1 storm.”

Last week the facility housed about 2,200 undocumented immigrant children. On Friday the population was at 1,750. The center has 3,200 beds. It is not clear if the children are being released to parents or legal guardians, or being moved to other shelters.

In late May, the Miami Herald reported that the center did not have a hurricane plan ready despite the coming hurricane season. Months later, the federal government has yet to provide the plans to the Herald and members of Congress.

HHS and Caliburn, the private operator that runs the center, did not return phone calls from the Herald. Sources confirmed that Homestead, at least temporarily, is not accepting any more children.

“It’s concerning,” Huang said. “They can’t protect any more children than 1,200. What happens if a storm hits tomorrow? This is Florida.”

Huang told the Herald that Friday was the second time that Amnesty International has visited the center since April. Since then, she said, she’s seen some positive changes and “also things that have not changed.”

“There’s an entirely new management team which has resulted in a bit more transparency. There is much less reluctance to have us speak to staff and kids and there is a lot of artwork being displayed,” Huang said of her three-hour tour. “At the same time, it’s a massive industrial-scale kind of housing, highly regimented. Kids have bar codes. They line up to wash their hands, to get food, to go to the bathroom. It’s like the kids are warehouse objects that are to be moved from one place to the next. It’s not a home.”

Advocates say one reason why children are being released at a higher volume is because of new policies that took effect in mid June.

Last year, the Trump administration came under heavy criticism over its treatment of people seeking to become legal guardians of the minors. The Office of Refugee Resettlement was sharing guardianship application information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which would then go after undocumented sponsors identified in the paperwork, as well as all members of their household, who were required to be fingerprinted. That changed months ago when only the sponsor had to get fingerprinted.

“Now, grandparents and adult siblings don’t need to get fingerprinted in order to apply to be a sponsor for a child. Before, it was just parents that had the exception,” Huang said.

Huang, along with other members of the delegation, said they are concerned about how the children’s cases are managed.

“There’s a significant percentage of children being seen by offsite case managers in El Paso and in San Antonio,” Huang said. “They speak with them via Google video or Skype and the sessions are not entirely in private, but rather in cubicles with computers.”

“We recognize all the challenges they have, but they have to do better. These temporary emergency facilities are not appropriate for kids,” Huang added.

Mark Weber, an HHS spokesman, told the Herald that the agency is currently seeking to eliminate emergency shelters altogether, but that it could at least take two years before that happens.

“The agency is looking at Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix to stand up permanent state-licensed shelters that will serve as influx facilities if we need them,” Weber said. “The current strategy, temporary influx shelters, it’s just not feasible.”

Weber said the permanent facilities would be more cost effective and would be smaller, housing 500 unaccompanied minors or fewer.

On average, a temporary shelter costs the government about $775 a day, while a permanent shelter costs around $250.

“If you want something fast, you pay extra, and when you need a shelter for 1,000 children, fast, the government is gonna be paying extra,” Weber said. “We’ve realized this model doesn’t really work anymore so we’re looking to change it.”

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.