Florida Detention Center Expands, Packing In Migrant Children 'Like Sardines'

The temporary shelter violates child welfare standards, according to advocates who recently toured the facility.

At a detention center in Homestead, Florida, a group of immigrant teens are packed into cold rooms that can hold 70 to 250 kids, given a substandard education and detained for more than six months, according to interviews done by five legal and child psychology experts.

On Feb. 6 and 7, the team spoke with roughly two dozen children to assess the Homestead shelter’s compliance with the Flores settlement, the 1997 agreement in a landmark lawsuit that outlines child welfare standards in government-run detention centers. They told HuffPost the conditions inside the “temporary” shelter at Homestead are troubling and not suitable for any child, especially over a long period of time.

“These children are in perhaps the most restrictive and least family-like setting possible,” said Neha Desai, the director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law, in an email to HuffPost. “I spoke with youth that slept in rooms with 100 other kids at night. Some of them have been there for months on end, with no freedom of movement, no privacy, no human contact.”

The Trump administration reopened the facility in February 2018 and in December announced it would almost double the shelter’s capacity from 1,350 to 2,350 children, ages 13 to 17.

Before Homestead’s expansion, most children slept in rooms of 12. But, according to immigration lawyers who visited Homestead last week, the facility recently outfitted one of its buildings to house 17-year-olds in large rooms that sleep 70 to 250 kids.

J.J. Mulligan Sepulveda, an immigration lawyer at the University of California, Davis, School of Law who conducted interviews at Homestead, spoke with teens who said they were sleeping in rooms with 150 to more than 200 kids.

Mulligan Sepulveda, who also received a tour of the facility, told HuffPost the bunk beds in these large rooms were in “perfect, neat, 12-by-12 rows” and that children were packed in “like sardines.” “[There’s] just enough room to walk by [with your] shoulder skimming the bunk beds on each side,” he said. “[It] really hits home how inhumane it is.”

Mary Bauer, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, says that, though kids should never be detained, the government shelters should at least be “small, home-like settings.” “A facility [with] a thousand kids is not appropriate for children,” Bauer said. “The idea [of] now moving to a 2,500-bed facility is very, very concerning.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declined to provide HuffPost with a comment.

The Homestead facility is considered a temporary shelter and should be used only to accommodate an influx of immigrants. But the number of children crossing the border hasn’t increased significantly, and experts say there are high numbers of detained immigrant kids only because the government is unnecessarily keeping them in shelters for record-long periods of time.

As a temporary shelter, Homestead isn’t required to follow Florida’s child welfare regulations when it comes to issues such as staff training, education and recreation time, unlike permanent Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters. Nor was Tornillo, a tent city that had the capacity to house 3,800 immigrant kids in the Texas desert, which was shut down in January amid public outcry.

The Homestead complex, which was opened by the Obama administration in 2016 for a 10-month period, is on federal land beside Homestead Air Reserve Base in Miami-Dade County. The campus, made up of buildings and tents, is surrounded by chain-link fences with guards at every entrance. Children are not allowed to leave the facility, despite regulations in the Flores settlement specifying that children’s shelters must be non-secure, and they must wear wristbands that track their movements.

Desai says the shelter is “very militaristic” and “highly regimented.” The children wake up at 6:30 a.m., spend most of the day in school, save for roughly an hour of outdoor time, and go to bed at around 10 p.m. They walk in single-file lines and eat at the cafeteria three times a day. They can only call their parents twice a week for 10 minutes.

A migrant teen plays soccer as others gather at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida, in December.
A migrant teen plays soccer as others gather at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida, in December.

Seventeen-year-olds detained in the newly opened Homestead building told Mulligan Sepulveda and Desai that to use the washroom in the middle of the night, the staff must escort them to temporary toilets outdoors and that they are only allowed to take five-minute showers.

They told the lawyers that the buildings were always cold and that they weren’t allowed to touch one another, which was also a rule at Tornillo.

Mulligan Sepulveda interviewed a 17-year-old girl who burst into tears because she was so desperate for a hug. He also spoke with a boy who only got to see his brother for an hour and a half each week because the teens were placed in separate buildings.

“It’s basic human contact that people need,” said Mulligan Sepulveda. “[Kids] spend all this time together, five to six months, and make friends. But when someone leaves or gets transferred, they can’t even hug each other to say goodbye.”

Desai said many of the children she spoke with had a hunger for human connection and suffered from the “sheer emotional deprivation of not getting to touch another human being for months on end.”

She added that when young people are warehoused together, there’s no way to meet their educational, physical and emotional needs. “They are existing in this highly regimented structure that leaves no space for any individualized attention,” she said.

Mulligan Sepulveda said children also complained about their schooling, which takes place in large tents subdivided into classrooms. Mateo, a 17-year-old who was recently released from Homestead after seven months and who requested a pseudonym to protect his privacy, told HuffPost that noise traveled between the classrooms, making it a “very loud and very distracting” experience.

The teachers at Homestead aren’t certified by the Miami-Dade County public school district, according to The New York Times. They were when the Obama administration opened the shelter in 2016.

A former teacher at Homestead recently told the Miami Herald that the children were given few books and that those books were often below their grade level. She said her students were enthusiastic to learn English but described the learning situation as “not a school.”

Mulligan Sepulveda and Desai said that, though Homestead is designed for short-term stays, they interviewed kids who had been in the shelter for more than six months and who had no idea when they would be released to their sponsors. According to HHS, are detained at Homestead for an average of 67 days.

“It’s completely baffling how they are justifying keeping kids there for [up to] nine months at a time,” Desai said. “In my mind, there’s zero justification for keeping kids there for several months, let alone these extreme [cases] of eight or nine months.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Legal Aid Justice Center and a Washington, D.C.-based law firm recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration, in part because of how long it’s keeping children detained. The filing describes how the sponsorship process is not transparent, and how case managers have the discretion to prolong the procedure or deny applicants based on subjective criteria.

Mateo’s father, Pablo, who also requested a pseudonym to protect his privacy, submitted his sponsorship application on July 25 and waited seven months for his son to be released. Throughout that time, he was told by caseworkers and social workers that he needed to resubmit his fingerprints, move into another apartment and send in three rounds of additional paperwork ― all of which cost him hundreds of dollars in transportation and rent.

Meanwhile, his son struggled with mental health issues at Homestead and experienced headaches “so severe that he broke out in screams, and was taken to a hospital,” according to the court filing.

“I would spend all day at work thinking about him,” Pablo said. “I would come home at night and would feel very sad.”

Desai says that her legal team is still evaluating what to do with the information they gathered from kids at Homestead. She says it’s important to tackle the foundational issues that result in temporary shelters like Homestead ― such as the fact that the government isn’t speedily releasing children to sponsors ― in addition to exposing worrisome conditions.

“We are trying to be thoughtful about the systemic issues,” she said. “If you shut down one place, it doesn’t mean the next place isn’t just going to crop up.”

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