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Congress must close for-profit child detention facility

Congress must close for-profit child detention facility
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In a cluster of depressing, industrial buildings and repurposed shipping containers in Florida, the United States has taken advantage of a legal loophole to perpetuate human rights violations against thousands of children. Homestead was opened as a so-called “temporary emergency” facility in March 2018 where unaccompanied children could be detained until they were taken in by friends or family willing to “sponsor” them while their claims for protection were adjudicated. In practice, it is a detention center that treats children like products on an assembly line, tagged with barcodes and handled with little care. It must be shut down. 

In April and again in July, our researchers were granted rare access to the facility. What they saw was thousands of children receiving shamefully inadequate care. Children live in a highly restrictive setting, forced to wear ID badges at all times with barcodes that are scanned whenever they enter or leave buildings. Children as young as 13 are required to fill out paperwork to request basic services, including feminine hygiene products. Some face unnecessary barriers because their language is not spoken by staff or used in materials. This is especially true for children coming from Central America who speak indigenous languages. There is little privacy, with children in some residential units using toilets and showers that have no doors – only shower curtains. Our researchers even found that Homestead had not adequately acknowledged, when asked, allegations of sexual abuse made by the children detained there.  

A few days or weeks of being held in these conditions would be traumatizing for a child. But children are being held at Homestead for weeks and even months.  

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A system of licensed, permanent shelters has existed for migrant children for years in the U.S. and Homestead was opened to handle what the Trump administration said was a “temporary influx” overwhelming these existing licensed shelters. But this special emergency designation has allowed the for-profit, privately-operated Homestead to seemingly ignore the safety and other state licensing requirements that apply to permanent shelters. The consequences have been disastrous. 

Under the Flores court settlement, the U.S. government is supposed to move children from emergency shelters like Homestead within 20 days. But the government and Homestead director have reported at different times that children at Homestead are held on average between 52 to 89 days. On our last visit, we were told the average was 25 days. One 17-year-old boy from Honduras told us he may have been held much longer than necessary because his case manager wasn’t truthful about her work on his behalf. “She would lie to me and tell me that she spoke to my sponsor every day, when she didn’t,” he said. During his three months at Homestead, he only met with his case manager three times.  

Infuriatingly, these cruelly long stays at Homestead, and the “emergency” the Trump administration claimed necessitated Homestead’s opening, are both part of a manufactured crisis of the administration’s own design. After all, people of all ages have a fundamental human right to seek asylum — a right also guaranteed in U.S. law. The U.S. system has been able to handle those requests for years. But now the administration has instituted policies that prioritize the enforcement of immigration laws over the welfare of children.  

Nearly all of these children have parents or family members ready to take them in. But the administration created this particular “emergency” and so-called need for Homestead by demanding fingerprints and other documentation from potential sponsors to share with immigration enforcement officials. This chilled the willingness of many sponsors to come forward, for fear of being targeted by ICE for deportation. As the backlog of children awaiting release to sponsors ballooned, additional space was needed to hold children in prolonged and indefinite detention. That’s why Homestead was needed in March 2018 — to detain this artificially larger population of children. The result is children languished in prolonged detention, in both permanent shelters and in Homestead. This is family separation by another name. 

There is only one appropriate response: Congress should act immediately to shut Homestead down, and children should be immediately released to appropriate sponsors. To get there, Congress must begin by urgently conducting public hearings on the Homestead facility and upcoming hearings are certainly a start. From there, stronger legislative steps may be required if the administration refuses to act on its own.   

The message from the current administration is clear: If children come to the U.S. fleeing for their lives, the government will lock them up and make it as difficult as possible to secure their release. The United States is better than this. It must end the horrific practice of detaining children and focus instead on protecting them.   

Margaret Huang is executive director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA).