Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said one of the country’s largest compounds for immigrant children felt a lot like a high school after touring it for the first time on Friday.
Curbelo was able to visit the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children after initially being denied entry to the facility, which is in his district, by the Department of Health and Human Services.
There are currently 1,313 children from ages 13-17 at the facility, Curbelo said, and 114 of them are children who were separated from their parents at the border because of the Trump administration’s policy of separating families who cross the border illegally together. The rest of the children are unaccompanied minors who crossed the border without their parents.
“The minors in this facility are being treated with great care and compassion,” Curbelo said in an interview after he toured the facility. “From everything I saw these adolescents are being treated with great care and all of their needs are being attended to.”
Curbelo said the facility director told him that 37 children who were once at the facility have been reunited with their parents after being separated at the border, a policy that Curbelo and most lawmakers in Washington want to end.
Democratic state Sens. Annette Taddeo and José Javier Rodríguez also toured the facility on Friday after being denied entry last month.
“I think the staff is doing the best they can under the circumstances but it’s very clear that it’s a detention center,” Taddeo said. “It’s very clear that kids even to go to the bathroom are lined up and accompanied, that was disturbing.”
Inside the facility, Curbelo said he saw classrooms where students were learning English, dormitory-style sleeping quarters and a cafeteria that reminded him of a high school. There are 1,700 employees dedicated to staffing the facility, and the gender split of the children appeared to be 60 percent male and 40 percent female, Curbelo said. Males and females appear to be completely separated from each other, they use the cafeteria at different times and have separate sleeping quarters and classrooms, he said.
Curbelo said he was told not to “interrogate” the children, but he did have “light conversations” with children who indicated they were being treated well.
“We had full access,” Curbelo said. “They asked us not to interrogate the minors but they did encourage light conversation. I greeted a lot of the minors, I asked them how they felt and how they were being treated, and they were positive conversations.”
Taddeo said she witnessed one child who was making a call to relatives with a facility employee listening in. The child was wiping away tears while on the phone, Taddeo said.
“That was not something I was supposed to see, but when I saw it, it was one of the more upsetting things that I saw,” Taddeo said, adding that the office where case workers tasked with reuniting parents and children was empty when they walked in, even though facility officials said it was staffed 24/7. Taddeo said it was possible that the staffers could have been out with the children or on a break.
Curbelo previously toured a much smaller facility in Miami-Dade that houses young children who crossed the border illegally. He said both facilities were well-run, but that the Catholic Charities-run facility at the old Boystown shelter in Cutler Bay had a “greater degree of warmth and compassion and individual attention” than the Homestead facility.
Curbelo is also pushing for legislation that would remove barriers for members of Congress so that they can visit facilities that host immigrant children. In addition to Curbelo being denied entry two weeks ago, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz were denied entry to the Homestead facility in June.
“It’s completely bogus and they should be ashamed of it,” Curbelo said of the current policy enforced by HHS.
Curbelo, who tried and failed to pass a GOP-only immigration bill that would have addressed the family separation policy last month, said it’s important for Congress to end the administration’s family separation policy with the force of law, but that the vast majority of children being held in facilities around the country are a product of a recent increase in unaccompanied minors coming across the border who would not be affected by such a law.
“A lot of people assume all of the children in these shelters are from the family separation policy and the public has to know we have an unaccompanied minor children crisis in our country,” Curbelo said.
But he blames attorney general Jeff Sessions for implementing the policy that led to images of children being held in cage-like structures on the Mexican border, and weeks of miscommunication by federal agencies like HHS and the Department of Homeland Security as they attempted to reunite families.
“The president has consistently expressed displeasure with Jeff Sessions and this is reason enough to fire him,” Curbelo said.