Two days after the federal government officially emptied out all migrant teens from the Homestead detention center, advocates of immigrants and protesters against the facility, who have camped outside it for months at a time, weren’t quite sure Monday if they should celebrate just yet.
In less than four weeks, about 2,700 children were rapidly transferred to other detention centers across the country or reunited with a sponsor after a weather disturbance was detected in the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, per the government’s hurricane plan, the 200-plus children that remained there Friday were abruptly bused to airports in the middle of the night.
Seeing the facility’s population dip to zero was a significant moment for people across the country, including members of Congress, presidential candidates and international leaders.
“In the last few weeks we’ve seen something pretty amazing happen. But we shouldn’t get too carried away with it because we still have to understand it a little better,” said Joshua Rubin, a lead protester who helped spearhead a campaign called “Shut Down Homestead.” Rubin, along with a half dozen other local immigration organizations, held a press conference outside the center on Monday.
“What made them close it? They say it‘s that they put together a hurricane plan, and that the plan advised them that they should get out of the way of a tropical wave that happened,” Rubin added. “But I think what really happened was that they were hit by a wave of bad publicity.”
Since February, dozens of demonstrations and protests against child detention have been held outside the Homestead center, in numerous other states and on Capitol Hill. Making headlines also were hundreds of pages of scathing court documents illustrating how children were being detained for months at a time and in turn were cutting themselves and crying themselves to sleep.
Following the court filing, senators, presidential candidates, members of Congress, leaders of House Committees, human rights organizations, watchdog groups and even celebrities made stops in Homestead outside the nation’s largest facility for unaccompanied minors to put pressure on the Trump administration to close it doors.
But will it really be shut down?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees Caliburn, the private company that operates the center, said that although the facility will not be accepting any new children, it will remain in “warm status” just in case there is no bed space at other detention centers.
“HHS plans to retain but reduce bed capacity at the Homestead facility from 2,700 beds to 1,200 beds for future access in the event of increased referrals or an emergency situation,” the agency said in an email. “At this time, retaining bed capacity at the Homestead influx facility is necessary to provide care and services to [unaccompanied minors] as mandated. We anticipate an uptick in the number of referrals made to HHS this fall, based on historical trends.”
The history of Homestead is not over, Rubin said.
“This is kind of a good moment in the story of Homestead, but there’s still more to find out,” he added, noting the increased presence of federal law enforcement, as well as the continuance of incoming shipment of materials into the migrant center, despite there being no children there.
Caliburn wouldn’t address any activity at the shelter Monday, though federal sources say at least 130 employees will stay on site to maintain the property.
“We will continue working with [HHS] to support their requirements in providing bed capacity as needed at Homestead for future unaccompanied alien children care and services,” the company said in an email.
Last week, the government entered into an agreement with Federal Protective Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. The agreement, federal sources say, included having armed federal agents on the property at all times and allowed Miami-Dade police to respond to the shelter if major crimes like sex assault, aggravated battery or an active shooting take place.
The increased security was a response, in large part, to several 911 calls the past few months in which security and FPS agents had trouble even determining where the calls came from. In the past, FPS did not have a full-time presence; a third-party unarmed security firm took the lead.
Despite there being no children on site, FPS will continue to be on the property 24/7 and recently consulted with an outside law enforcement firm on how to improve its security. Federal sources say the consultants toured Homestead a few days after a teen boy successfully ran away. He jumped a fence, sprinted off the property and hid in nearby brush for hours as staff circled the perimeter and called out his name. Ultimately the boy made his way back to the property because he was hungry.
Whether those increased security measures will be needed again in Homestead remains a mystery. Also a mystery: where exactly the children were evacuated to.
“This is a great victory, but it’s not the end,” said Jonathan Fried, executive director of WeCount!, a farmworkers’ rights group in Homestead. “This shelter isn’t closed. It has no children but they are keeping it open just in case. There needs to be transparency about what happens to the kids when they leave here. How many were reunited? How many were transferred? How many aged out and taken to ICE detention? Where were they taken? Until we get those answers, we won’t stop.”
HHS would not provide any data to the Miami Herald regarding where the children were transferred.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.