Homestead detention center will shut down, but will cost millions to run empty till the end

The private prison company running the Homestead detention center that housed thousands of migrant children since 2018 and became a symbol of the Trump administration’s immigration policies will not have its contract renewed, according to an email sent Friday to Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Miami, by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Caliburn, the contractor that operates the facility on land owned by the Department of Labor, will not have its federal contract renewed when it expires on Nov. 30 — though the facility will be placed into “warm status,” which means HHS will retain access to Homestead and can reopen it. The remaining staff members at Homestead will be released in the next five to seven days, and the facility’s bed capacity will be reduced to zero, according to the email.

“In our ongoing efforts to ensure fiscal prudence, following a sustained decrease in referrals, HHS operations at the Homestead Temporary Influx facility will be transitioned into warm status effective immediately,” the HHS office of the assistant secretary for legislation said in the email to Mucarsel-Powell, whose congressional district includes the Homestead facility.

HHS workers will still have access to the site, which has not accepted new immigrant children since July 3. The detention center became the focus of frequent protests from activists and lawmakers in the spring. The last unaccompanied children were relocated from it in August, and the center remained open but dormant.

The Trump administration said Friday the facility could reopen “in the event of an increase in UAC [unaccompanied alien child] referrals or an emergency situation” but the bed capacity will be “reduced to zero.”

The decision to pull the contract from Homestead, effectively shuttering it, is a victory for immigration activists, some of whom protested outside the facility for weeks at a time, and Democratic lawmakers. During the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate, which was held in Miami in June, candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders climbed stepladders outside the facility to get a look inside, and they brought hundreds of protesters and the national media with them.

“The pressure that Congress and I — and our Homestead community — put on the administration worked,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement Monday. “Caliburn will no longer receive millions of dollars to operate an empty facility. The taxpayer should never have been footing the bill for the result of inhumane immigration policies. Given Caliburn’s poor record of child abuse and neglect, as well as the sheer number of former administration officials now serving on Caliburn’s board, this is a good first step towards ending one of many corrupt practices this administration has executed. I will now set my sights on closing the site all together because no one, especially children, should ever be held in these conditions.”

A spokesperson for Caliburn did not respond to a request for comment.

Immigration activists praised the news that Caliburn will not have its contract renewed.

“As one of the witnesses that camped outside the gates of Homestead for six months, I am proud of any role we may have played in bringing to an end the abomination of a child’s prison conducted for the profit of men like [former White House chief of staff] John Kelly, an author of the deliberate cruelty that is our immigration policy,” immigration activist Joshua Rubin said.

Thomas Kennedy, a spokesperson with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said the federal government’s decision to award a contract for immigration work involving children to a for-profit prison company was immoral.

“The Florida Immigrant Coalition is pleased to hear that the Homestead Detention Camp for Children seems to be closing down for good,” Kennedy said. “Children should not be locked up at all, but to put a profit incentive behind their detention adds to the immorality of this practice.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said Democrats will continue to push for legislation that expedites the family reunification process so unaccompanied minors spend less time in federal custody.

“I am relieved to hear the Trump administration is shutting down yet another for-profit child detention camp, thanks to pressure from Democrats in Congress, especially South Florida Members, and the immigrant advocacy community,” Wasserman Schultz said. “But this for-profit abomination should never have been opened.”

Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Miami, praised Homestead’s closure but warned “this will probably not be the end of detaining immigrant children for profit in this country.”

“I firmly believe that no business in America should make a profit from locking up children. We cannot rest until we end for-profit detention in all its forms,” Shalala said in a statement.

According to HHS, 14,300 children were housed at the Homestead detention center from March 2018 until August 2019. The facility was also open during the Obama administration from June 2016 until April 2017, and it housed 8,500 children during that time.

Since its most recent closing on Aug. 3, taxpayers have paid $61.9 million to operate the empty facility. That’s $720,000 a day — $600 a day for each of 1,200 empty beds. When kids are present at the facility, the cost is $750 a day per child.

HHS said approximately 4,300 unaccompanied immigrant children are currently in the agency’s network in facilities around the country.

The email told Mucarsel-Powell that HHS retains control over the South Florida facility and it could reopen if the number of unaccompanied immigrant children increases.

“At this time, retaining access to the Homestead influx facility remains necessary to provide care and services ... keeping in mind the unpredictable nature of UAC referral trends,” the HHS office of the assistant secretary for legislation said.

Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.