Politics

A 'tender age' shelter for separated children exposes a 'gut-wrenching' reality in Miami

Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo speaks to the media after touring  Catholic Charities' Boystown in Cutler Bay.  Run by the Archdiocese of Miami, the complex is tasked with housing children who came into the country by themselves or were removed from their parents as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, which had included taking children from their parents as they go through immigration processing.
Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo speaks to the media after touring Catholic Charities' Boystown in Cutler Bay. Run by the Archdiocese of Miami, the complex is tasked with housing children who came into the country by themselves or were removed from their parents as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, which had included taking children from their parents as they go through immigration processing. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

In this "tender age" shelter in South Miami-Dade, children as young as 4 can ask for a telephone when they miss their parents.

Two teenage mothers live here with their infants.

And some children — as many as 22 of them separated from their families at the U.S. border — go on field trips to hopefully take their minds off their solitude for an afternoon.

The near-impossible job of comforting some of the youngest boys and girls whose lives have been turned upside-down by U.S. immigration policy and conditions in the countries they fled falls to the dozens of employees at the old Boystown shelter in Cutler Bay. Run by the Archdiocese of Miami, the complex is tasked with housing children who came into the country by themselves or were removed from their parents as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, which had included taking children from their parents as they go through immigration processing.

"We try to provide the comforts of home as best that we can," said Mary Ross Agosta, an archdiocese spokeswoman. Agosta said the children have access to basketball courts, tennis courts, teachers and telephones "to help them adjust to their new surroundings and the new country that they’re in."

The shelter — one of three in Miami-Dade known to house unaccompanied children for the Department of Health and Human Services — opened its doors for the first time Monday to members of Congress as tensions continue to flare over President Donald Trump's immigration policies. U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Debbie Wasserman Schultz toured the facility, each giving it praise while condemning the separation of families at the U.S. border.

"This is a president that is a bigot and sadist," said Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, "and harkens back to times when we treated entire races and cultures of individuals as less than human."

Democratic congress woman Debbie Wasserman Schultz calls president Trump a sadist after visiting shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children in Miami on June 25, 2018.

South Florida erupted last week over news that the federal government was housing as many as 1,200 children in a formerly shuttered youth shelter in Homestead, and dozens more at two long-standing shelters. Members of Congress visited the temporary Homestead facility over the weekend ahead of a march and protest, and said they'd learned details about His House, where children and babies were being cared for in Miami Gardens.

But less was known about the former Boystown, now known as Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village, before Monday's visit by Curbelo and Wasserman Schultz. Curbelo, a Southwest Miami-Dade Republican who's pushing for an immigration bill to be heard in the House, said he was glad Trump ended the government's separation of immigrant parents by executive order but noted he's also pushing for legislation that would cement such a prohibition.

Wasserman Schultz called the situation "inhumane, unnecessary and gut-wrenching."

But the kids at the facility, Curbelo said, are "being treated exceptionally well."

"They’re in classrooms learning. Another group of younger children were on their way to the Seaquarium this morning," he said. "The children were smiling. They were happy. We were able to ask them questions."

According to Agosta, 70 children are currently at the shelter, which first opened 60 years ago to accommodate children fleeing Cuba aboard Operation Pedro Pan flights. The shelter has room for 81, and houses some children who are stranded due to reasons unrelated to the country's immigration policies. Between 8 and 10 children have been reunited with families since the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy began in April, she said.

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Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz Wasserman Schultz said the bulk of children she encountered at Boystown were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

On Monday, Wasserman Schultz said the bulk of children she encountered were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. She said the process of reuniting children with their parents — which Agosta said typically takes four or five weeks — seemed more organized at the archdiocese shelter than it does at the temporary "military style, barracks, bare-bone" Homestead shelter.

"The most heartbreaking thing is there are minor girls there with newborns at this facility. One just came in with a baby," said Wasserman Schultz. She added that another teenage mother was previously separated from her parents, reunified with them, had a baby in the U.S. and then was arrested as an undocumented immigrant and ordered for deportation.

Though Trump threw gasoline on the country's heated immigration politics this weekend when he suggested shutting down U.S. borders completely to undocumented immigrants, Curbelo is among those who remains hopeful that there will be votes this week that could lead to new policy. Immigration also remains a contentious issue now in the heat of election season, but Wasserman Schultz said fixing the policy is what's most important.

"I desperately want kids to be reunited with their parents," she said. "I’d rather lose the election and have families be reunited."

Hundreds marched toward the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unacompanied Children Saturday protesting the separation of immigrant families at the U.S. Mexico border.

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