The homestead for unaccompanied minors in Miami, Florida is increasing once more
The country’s largest holding facility for unaccompanied migrant children is being expanded for the second time this year and quickly expanded by more than 850 bedsthat is already able to accommodate more than 2,300 young people.
An April 1 announcement of the US Department of Health (HHS) decision attributed the facility’s growth to a “dramatic increase” in unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border in recent months. The plant was expanded considerably in mid-January and has almost doubled compared to its original capacity. The latest expansion – an increase of around 36 percent to 3,200 beds from mid-April – was first reported by the Miami New Times.
The announcement came three days after the Minister for Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, co-wrote a letter to members of the House and SenateGrant more authority so that DHS can bring unaccompanied migrant children back to their home countries. In her letter, she said that the current process of ultimately bringing children into the care of godparents in the US is encouraging more migrants to make the journey north.
When a CBS News reporter toured the Homestead facility on February 27, his program coordinator estimated that more than 99 percent of residents had fled violence in their home countries. The vast majority of those housed in Homestead are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The facility is located on several acres of state adjacent to an Air Reserve Base in Homestead, Florida, and is the only site in the country. Young people sleep in dormitories with bunk beds, which range from small rooms for 12 younger children to huge halls that are shared by up to 200 17-year-old boys in rows of beds that are about shoulder-width apart.
During the February tour, the program coordinator claimed that the older children preferred the cave-like digs to the more confined spaces.
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“They say it’s like a slumber party,” she said.
The facility is divided into two separate, fenced-in sections. The south side has space for 13 to 16 year olds, and across the street, the north side is exclusively for 17 year olds who are considered too old to be accommodated with the younger teenagers. Siblings separated due to this age group may schedule short weekly supervised visits.
The days start at 6 a.m. and follow a strict schedule as the children walk from building to building in single lines under the watchful eye of more than 2,300 employees. The facility’s operator, Comprehensive Health Services, is the country’s only private company operating unaccompanied children’s homes for migrants. In addition to the Homestead facility, three new facilities opened in Texas last year, and two more are due to open in the program coordinator.
Around three quarters of the facility’s current population of around 2,000 are boys. In the large, air-conditioned tents, a cacophony of teacher voices is carried by microphones over temporary walls that separate dozens of classrooms. The children receive classes in English, reading and writing, social studies, math, and science, but the instructors and curricula are not supervised or certified by the local Miami-Dade County public schools.
Obtained from CBS News
Although the children are usually held in small groups that are dropped from class to class and between appointments, hundreds of them come together to eat and relax.
Meals range from quintessentially American dishes (scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, sausage and hash browns for breakfast on February 27, the day the CBS news reporter visited them) to versions of common Latin American dishes (pork adobo with rice and beans ).
According to a federal court arrangement known as the Flores Settlement, unaccompanied migrants are to be housed in “unsafe” facilities, meaning the children cannot be prevented from coming and going at will. The facility’s administrator said this was technically the case at Homestead, but admitted that the facility is surrounded by a tall covered fence and is monitored by a large team of patrolling private security companies.
During a daily outdoor recreation session, young people gathered in groups or played soccer on a field supported by the tall, covered fence that surrounds the property. This is the only place that teenagers can be seen from outside the facility, and protesters routinely gather across the street shouting messages of support in Spanish over the fence as tan armored vehicles zoom by.
The high level of security is one of many problems that have repeatedly been raised by lawyers charged with monitoring compliance with the Flores Agreement. They flagged Homestead and a dozen other entities in a December 31 letter to the Justice Department setting out what they believe are violations of the agreement. Although HHS refers to Homestead as a temporary inflow supply facility, some attorneys involved use stricter terms to describe this.
“We are deeply concerned about this ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of HHS] has decided to expand the capacity of this unlicensed detention center rather than increasing its capacity to immediately transfer children to their family members, “wrote Leecia Welch, senior director of legal representation and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law, an involved nonprofit law firm in the case Flores.
Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Used similar language in a statement to CBS News Thursday morning.
“Homestead is a huge prison for immigrant children whose only crime is to flee home from persecution. I visited last month and was concerned to find out that this prison operates outside of Florida State’s jurisdiction. I spoke to said they were threatened with indefinite detention if they misbehaved, “Merkley said. “These children belong in houses, schools and playgrounds while they wait for their asylum hearings, not in prisons. This prison should be closed, not expanded.”
Another complaint from attorneys and attorneys involved with Homestead is that, despite the hasty hiring of hundreds of new employees after its initial expansion in January, Comprehensive Health Services was unable to access Florida’s nationwide child abuse background check system.
In its April 1 announcement, HHS stated that employees are subject to FBI background checks.
“FBI background checks of fingerprints are robust and provide relevant information sufficient to keep children safe,” said HHS. However, attorneys note that while the FBI is looking for criminal convictions, the state child abuse databases contain information about child welfare investigations and allegations that do not necessarily lead to criminal charges, so licensed childcare workers can search for red flags that indicate the federal System maybe has miss.
Last year, Florida’s Children’s Fund investigated two allegations of sexual abuse by staff at the facility, but found that the allegations could not be substantiated, according to the Florida Intelligence Service.