POLITICS

'It Feels Like We Are Prisoners': Migrant Children Describe Trauma At Florida Detention Center

Lawyers say the facility violates child welfare standards, and that no minor should be held at Homestead for more than 20 days.

Immigrant children described being put in isolation for eight days, deprived of physical touch and constantly sobbing at a temporary detention center in Homestead, Florida, according to a motion filed by immigration lawyers on Friday.

The lawyers claim the facility violates child welfare standards, and want a court order stating the government cannot hold children at Homestead for more than 20 days.

“The conditions at Homestead are very similar to conditions in a prison camp,” said Peter Schey, the president and executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law Foundation. “Children detained there suffer tremendous psychological harm.”

Some children have been held at the Homestead shelter for more than six months, with the largest group staying between 31 and 60 days, according to the filing, which includes interviews with 75 immigrant minors over the past year.

That’s far longer than children are supposed to remain in government custody. The 1997 Flores court settlement requires the government to either promptly release children to sponsors or transfer them to non-secure, licensed facilities “as expeditiously as possible.” Instead, with a 57% increase of unaccompanied immigrant children being apprehended at the border since last year, and an increase in sponsor vetting, teenagers reported being stuck for months. The minors at Homestead described having no idea when they would be released, being passed from one case manager to another and having multiple sponsors denied.

I pray to God that I get to leave here. I feel so alone. A 17-year-old at the detention center

“I pray to God that I get to leave here. I feel so alone,” said a 17-year-old from Guatemala. “It feels like we are prisoners because we have been here for so much time.”

An official with the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for caring for children who arrive at the border without their parents, said “the task of releasing each child to the most appropriate sponsor is complex and done with great care.” The department did not respond to a request for comment about the allegation that Homestead is not making prompt efforts to release children.

The official said the current average stay in Homestead is down to 33 days, and that the number is subject to change frequently based on many factors. But in February, HHS reported children were held for 67 days in the facility. Only 16% of children are released from the facility within 20 days, according to data analysis by a team at Stanford University’s department of emergency medicine.

Immigrant advocates say children are being kept so long in Homestead because of poor case management. Some kids said they were at the facility for 50 days without having their case looked at, while others said they had multiple case managers who would each restart the sponsorship process, said Neha Desai, the director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law, who has interviewed children at Homestead.

A 17-year-old from Guatemala said he had been at the shelter for more than five months, despite the fact that his uncle lives in Miami and had filled out all the paperwork to be his sponsor. A case manager told him he had to wait for others to leave before he could go, and the teenager had no idea of how long that would take. 

Other teens were held up by the government’s process for approving sponsors. Last March, a 15-year-old girl from Guatemala told lawyers she had been at Homestead for almost five months, with no sense of when she could leave. A case worker said she could not be released to her uncle, who lives in Tennessee, because he lived with friends and did not have photos of himself and his niece together. When a family friend stepped up to take care of B.M., who is identified in the court filing by her initials, the sponsorship was denied because they aren’t blood-related.

I do not know when I can leave this place. I want to get out of here as soon as possible. A 16-year-old at the detention center

“Sometimes it’s really hard having to stay here,” she said. “A couple of girls since I’ve been here have been cutting themselves.” Other sources who had been to the facility said they had heard of children self-harming.

Homestead is a sprawling complex of dormitory buildings and tents, surrounded by chain-link fence and with guards stationed at every entrance. The facility, which was originally used by the Obama administration in 2016 for 10 months, was reopened in February to accommodate an increase in unaccompanied children crossing the border. Since then the Trump administration more than doubled the facility’s capacity and it currently houses 2,300 children between the ages of 13-17.

Because it’s considered a temporary shelter and located on federal land beside an Air Reserve Base, the facility is unlicensed, meaning it isn’t required to follow state child welfare standards. The older teenagers sleep in large rooms with up to 200 others, packed with rows of bunk beds that are shoulder-width apart. The children go to school in big outdoor tents subdivided into smaller classrooms, but say it’s too noisy to focus.

They are accompanied everywhere by staff members, and that they have to ask permission to go to the bathroom or get water. Children wear wristbands that track their movements and they walk in single-file lines. Their rooms are periodically searched.

They told lawyers they have five minutes to shower and 15 minutes to eat. Minors can only speak with family over the phone two times a week for 10 minutes, and they aren’t allowed to touch one another.

“Sometimes when your friend is crying because they can’t stand being here any longer you want to be able to give them a hug,” said a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who had been in Homestead for over two months. “But you can’t because it’s against the rules.”

A 17-year-old from El Salvador said that on his birthday he couldn’t even call his mom, because he didn’t have access to the phone. “Nobody has sung happy birthday to me today,” he told lawyers.

A 16-year-old from Honduras said he cries in his room sometimes, because he’s used to having his parents hug him goodnight. “I do not know when I can leave this place,” he said. “I want to get out of here as soon as possible.”

Children said that if they are disobedient, staff members said they could be deported or have their cases delayed by up to 30 days. One 16-year-old boy said he was put in isolation last July after telling one of the counselors he wanted to go home. He told lawyers he was forced to spend 24 hours a day in the room, which had only 12 bunk beds.

“I cried every day because I didn’t want to be there,” he said. “I felt so alone that I was even losing my appetite.”

Dr. Yenys Castillo, a clinical psychologist who has interviewed children at Homestead, said children in these environments have elevated stress hormones that can lead to mental and physical health problems. She spoke with children whose friends had begun self-harming, and said she worries about kids becoming suicidal.

“They are not allowed to be children and it’s developmentally inappropriate,” she said. “This is one of the most traumatized populations I’ve ever worked with.”

One lawyer said her team interviewed a child who had attempted suicide and been hospitalized three times.

Schey, the lead lawyer on the court filing, said he hopes the government will agree to a 20-day detention limit at Homestead, but that his ultimate goal is to have the facility shut down entirely.

“I don’t think operating a military-style camp in a hurricane zone so a company can make a few hundred million dollars is a good decision,” said Schey, referring to the government’s contract with a company called Comprehensive Health Services to run the facility, which is worth up to $220 million. “I hope the administration gives serious consideration to shut down Homestead promptly and place kids in licensed facilities.”

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