HOMESTEAD, Fla. ― Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Wednesday traveled to the controversial for-profit Homestead shelter for unaccompanied migrant kids in anticipation of the primary debates in Miami this week.
Warren was not allowed in. She said her team put in a request and was denied. But before she spoke Wednesday, she stood on a small ladder and looked over the gate, occasionally waving at the children on the other side. Warren said she saw kids walking single-file from one temporary shelter to another, flanked by guards.
“There weren’t children playing. There weren’t children laughing the way children usually do when they’re moving from one place to another,” Warren told reporters afterward. “These were children who were being marched like little soldiers ― like little prisoners ― from one place to another. This is not what we should be doing as a country.”
Throughout the morning, a group of demonstrators chanted “Shut it down” and “Homes instead.” They also yelled “Los queremos” (we love you) and “Estamos con ustedes” (we are with you) at the children inside the facility. Some of the children walking in sweltering heat waved back at Warren and the demonstrators. Others did not.
“We’re trying to show the kids that yes, people do care about them and we welcome them and they should be treated like human beings,” said Ken Barnes, 70, a semi-retired civil rights lawyer who has made multiple trips to Homestead from his home state of New Hampshire.
Warren joins several Democratic presidential candidates who have committed to visiting the shelter following pressure from immigrant rights activists. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas); Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have all said they will visit. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) went to the facility Monday, and he joined those who refer to it as a “prison.” Soon after Warren left, Jane Sanders, wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders, visited the facility as well.
Homestead houses approximately 2,300 unaccompanied 13- to 17-year-olds who were apprehended at the border and then placed in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. In most cases, they did not have their parents with them at the border.
The conditions at Homestead do not meet basic child welfare standards, according to immigration lawyers who recently interviewed teenagers at the facility. The teens complained about being put in isolation for up to eight days, and they said they were deprived of physical touch. Others talked about sobbing every day after being stuck in Homestead for months and not knowing when they’d be released to their sponsors.
Children are supposed to leave the facility “as expeditiously as possible,” according to a court settlement. However, lawyers said increased sponsor vetting and case management inefficiencies have led to some kids being detained for more than six months. These long stays are troubling because Homestead is a temporary facility, meaning it is not licensed and is not required to follow Florida’s child care standards.
“What is happening at Homestead to children, what is happening as the direct result of the activities of the United States government, is wrong. It is a stain on our country,” Warren said into a megaphone. “We will stay here at Homestead until this facility releases these children and closes down.”
The complex, located on federal land beside an Air Reserve Base, is surrounded by chain-link fence with guards stationed at every entrance. The 17-year-olds sleep in tightly packed rooms that fit up to 250 people, and the younger teens sleep in rooms of 12. All children go to school in large tents, and they complain they can’t hear the teachers because of noise that travels between them.
The Obama administration originally opened Homestead in 2016, and it stayed open for 10 months. The Trump administration began using it again in 2018, and it has more than doubled the shelter’s capacity.
“You see 20 kids playing soccer and there’s 3,000 kids here. Where are the rest of them?”
Warren said outside Homestead that President Donald Trump is hurting migrants for his own political gain.
“Our government is following a policy of inflicting maximum pain on families that flee here trying to build a better life,” she said. “And he’s doing it for the worst of political reasons. That is not who we want to be as a people.”
Last week, Warren released a plan to ban for-profit prisons and detention centers like Homestead, referring to their practices as “exploitation, plain and simple.”
“The government has a basic responsibility to keep the people in its care safe — not to use their punishment as an opportunity for profit,” she wrote in a post on Medium.
Michael Greene, 77, was standing outside the facility after Warren left. He lives in Homestead, and he tries to come by twice a week. His wife comes every day, he said.
“It’s outrageous that these kids are being locked up, and they’re calling it a summer camp?” Greene said. “You see 20 kids playing soccer and there’s 3,000 kids here. Where are the rest of them? Try to call in. Try to have them call in. Try to go in. Try to have a representative go in. It’s a closed place. It’s a prison. They’re in barracks and it’s outrageous and it’s being done just to send a message that we don’t want you.”
Greene said most of the surrounding community isn’t aware of what’s going on, except for the people who have gotten jobs as a result.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), whose district houses the facility, on Wednesday publicly thanked Warren for visiting Homestead. “We need to reunite these families,” she tweeted. In a statement, she invited all of the Democratic presidential candidates to visit the facility and called for the center to be closed.
Warren’s campaign also arranged for two buses to take her supporters to Homestead on Wednesday morning, according to the campaign.
Warren said Tuesday at a town hall in Miami that she had seen “cage after cage after cage” at a child migrant detention facility in McAllen, Texas, last year.
“This is a bad time in America’s history,” Warren said. “Our government is supposed to reflect our values. Our government is supposed to keep us safe. But a government that can’t tell the difference between the threat posed by a terrorist, a criminal, and a little girl is not a government that is keeping us safe and it is certainly not a government that reflects our values.”
Reporting by Maxwell Strachan in Homestead, Angelina Chapin in New York and Gavrielle Jacobovitz in Washington.
This story has been updated with further details from Warren’s visit.