On July 12, a group of Hispanic ministers and parishioners called a press conference to correct what they called the misconceptions about the living conditions in the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. Russell Black of Latin Impact Ministries and Gigi Delgado of Hope 4 Life led the charge.

“This is not a detention center. It is a protection center,” Delgado said. “(The children) are not miserable because of their circumstance (in the shelter). They are miserable because of the story they are carrying.”

Black said all volunteers and employees of the center are required to sign non-disclosure agreements, but said he received special dispensation to speak candidly from officials inside the shelter. While he declined to answer questions about how the children came to be designated as unaccompanied, he said every kid has a bed, three meals a day, a shower, schooling and is issued two pairs of shoes and clothing upon arrival. The kids are allowed two 10-minute phone calls “home” every week. He also said the kids are separated into gender and age groups and accompanied 24/7 by a youth care worker. He said there are case workers and medical personnel as well.

“They have video games. They have PlayStations and Xboxes,” Black said.

Another speaker said in Spanish, “They play on artificial soccer fields, and those are not cheap.”

Debbie Wehking was born in Homestead and now lives in West Kendall. She said she has been protesting at the shelter’s entrance for more than a month now. She and colleagues operate under a tent festooned with signs like “Caliburn, Shame on You!” (Caliburn is the company that operates the shelter.)

“The conditions here do not compare to the conditions on that border at all, and I’m grateful for that,” Wehking said. “But there’s no motivation for the people who work here to efficiently process the children and get them to the family members and sponsors in this country.”

Delgado and Black both said they have volunteered at the shelter since it opened in 2015. Both said they don’t see the same kids every week during the religious services they conduct inside. Estimates of the number of children inside, according to the volunteers, range from 2,500 to 4,000. Black said there are about two dozen faithful who volunteer inside; 400 kids attend the service at a time, and multiple services are held. Both Black and Delgado said they are not allowed to interview the children to learn more about their circumstances. But Delgado said she gleans something from the prayers they request about how they came to be at the shelter in the first place.

“Sometimes they are separated from their parents at the border. Sometimes they arrive with another family member or an adult and are separated,” she said. “Some have been abandoned by their families in their own countries and come to the U.S. looking for their parents. Or the parents pay ‘coyotes’ to take the children across the border and the coyotes abandon them.”

One of the most often remarked shelter rules is the “no touching” rule, she said. Children cannot touch each other, nor are staff or volunteers allowed to touch the children in their care.

“What can replace the hug of a mother? Nothing,” Delgado said. “You can’t hug them for their own good. Many of them are traumatized by the time they get here.”

The subject of unaccompanied minors has punctuated the national news as of late. On July 1, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited shelters on the Texas border and said detainees were being treated inhumanely, forced to drink water out of the toilet and denied showers for days. A few days earlier, on June 26, U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell invited all the Democrat presidential candidates to the shelter, just south of Miami where the first debate was held. They were denied entry. On July 5, Mucarsel-Powell sent a letter to the Office of Refugee Resettlement with 51 questions about the shelter, ranging from hurricane evacuation plans to the number of children in the shelter.

The shelter is located adjacent to the Homestead Air Force base and was opened in 2015 during the Obama administration. It closed briefly in 2018, then reopened.

The shelter is operated by Comprehensive Health Services. Black said it employs about 4,000 at the Homestead shelter. Comprehensive Health Services is owned by Caliburn International, which in turn is owned by D.C. Capital Partners. In May 2019, Comprehensive Health Services received a no-bid, seven-month contract worth $341 million. A federal official told the Miami Herald the no-bid aspect was due to “unusual and compelling urgency.” The newspaper also reported Comprehensive Health Services earns $775 per day, per child, according to a representative from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

According to a 2018 article from Reveal News, there are 87 shelters across the U.S. for unaccompanied minors. The one in Homestead is thought to be the biggest, or one of the biggest, although there are very few hard numbers. Speakers at the July 12 press conference said they weren’t sure how many kids were inside — some guessed 2,000, another guessed 2,500 and yet another said 4,000. According to shelter officials, all the kids range in age from 13 to 17.

But on July 15, a group from the U.S. House that toured the facility including U.S. Rep Rosa DeLauro and U.S. Rep Debbie Wasserman Shultz were told the numbers were much lower. A spokesperson told the group that the population is currently 1,309 teenagers — down from 2,252 on July 3. Also on July 15, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services representative told the press that there are no teenagers “being added to the facility,” as quicker reunification of children and parents has opened up space at other shelters. DeLauro was reported as saying the children did not appear to be mistreated and were smiling. Another elected official on the tour said the classrooms were so noisy as to make learning impossible.

In May, Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law filed suit against the U.S. government for failing to comply with the terms of the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997. The Flores Agreement outlines how unaccompanied minors are to be treated in situations like these. In November 2018 and March 2019, Schey sent a team of professionals to inspect the Homestead facility. He found four main issues: the children are staying for prolonged periods; it is a secure facility (in other words, more like a jail than a shelter); the children are harmed by the lengthy detention; the children are illegally delayed. According to shelter data provided to Schey, the average length of a child’s stay at Homestead is 62 days, down from 89 days during the period the federal government demanded fingerprints from all adults living in a proposed sponsor’s household. Schey’s exhibits included testimony from shelter children who said it had been weeks since they had spoken to a caseworker, and generally expressed confusion about the process.

“I think the children here are miserable,” said Wehking, the on-site activist protesting the shelter. “They don’t know where they are, how long they will be here for, or when they will ever be reunited. I cry myself to sleep every night.”

The pastors who spoke last week at the press conference in front of the shelter identified themselves as immigrants.

“Twenty-six years ago I was an immigrant,” said Elvin Espinal. “Immigration has rules and a process. We need to see to the needs of the children going through this process.”

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