The Department of Health and Human Services is hitting back at members of Congress and their staffs who are trying to see inside facilities that house children who have been separated from their parents while crossing the border illegally.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican, was barred from visiting the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on Friday even though he tried to set up a visit weeks ago and followed protocols issued by the Trump administration.
When asked why Curbelo was not allowed into the Homestead facility, an HHS spokesperson said requests to visit facilities by members of Congress have created "a significant and unnecessary strain" on staff members working at the facilities.
"More than 50 members of Congress and 60 congressional staffers visited in the month of June alone," HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer said in a statement. "Despite these efforts, there continue to be Members and staff who disregard long-standing policies for visit requests and accommodations, creating significant and unnecessary strain on grantee shelters’ staff, whose first and foremost priority is providing for the safety, security, and care of youth at their facilities. President [Donald] Trump has continually called on Congress to fix our nation’s broken immigration system, and we encourage members of Congress to focus on long-term solutions to policies that are driving tens of thousands of people to our borders, unaccompanied or otherwise."
Curbelo, who is responsible for oversight and helps set funding levels for federal agencies such as HHS, was appalled by the response.
"I don't feel sorry for them at all," Curbelo said. "We fund all of their operations and all of their salaries, so they should make the time and effort to allow us to see the work they're doing, especially if they're confident in the work they're doing."
Curbelo said his visit had been confirmed with local officials for over a week and that he followed protocols laid out by HHS last month for lawmakers who wish to visit facilities housing immigrant children, making sure that his visit wouldn't be intrusive.
"I was extremely upset given that we had worked for weeks to set this up," Curbelo said. "I didn't go over there and just show up unannounced, I said I'll work through all the channels and make sure that the facility is prepared and that I'm not a distraction to any work being done there, so it was very disappointing."
The Homestead facility, which is thought to host about 1,100 children, was recently reopened after the Trump administration decided to start separating parents from their children when they cross the border illegally. About 70 children at the facility were separated from their parents and some of those children have been unable to contact their parents. The rest of the children at the facility are unaccompanied minors.
HHS spokesperson Kenneth Wolfe did not respond when asked for an updated account of how many children were at the Homestead facility.
Federal lawmakers did gain access to the Homestead facility two weeks ago after a barrage of media attention and protests. Sen. Marco Rubio and members of the media toured the Homestead facility on June 22, while six members of Congress visited the facility on June 23. Curbelo was unable to visit the facility in his congressional district on either day as he remained in Washington trying to craft an immigration bill, and reached out to HHS to schedule his own visit.
Curbelo's office said it was not given a reason for the denial other than that an HHS staff member from Washington would be unable to make it to South Dade in time for his visit, even though Curbelo's office confirmed the Friday visit a week ago.
Curbelo, who did visit another facility in Cutler Bay that also holds unaccompanied children and children separated from their parents last week, said he will sign onto a bill sponsored by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, that requires members of Congress to be granted access to immigrant facilities under HHS' umbrella.
Wasserman Schultz and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson were initially denied entry to the Homestead shelter after Wasserman Schultz's office was made aware of the presence of children at the South Dade facility, which was initially opened during President Barack Obama's administration and then closed until it reopened a few weeks ago.
"If they had a good reason, I'd like to hear it," Curbelo said. "I haven't heard it yet."