Originally Published in The New York Times
Jan. 15, 2019
The federal government said this week it had effectively closed a teeming tent city for migrant children on the Texas border, a facility that opponents of the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies had described as a juvenile prison.
But plans are now underway in Florida to nearly double the capacity of a similar, unregulated detention center for migrant teenagers, federal officials confirmed this week.
The government plans to expand the number of children housed at a “temporary shelter” in Homestead, Fla., from 1,350 to 2,350 in January, according to a Dec. 26 letter from the Department of Health and Human Services outlining the plan.
A department spokeswoman confirmed the plans, but said that the facility still houses only 1,100 minors as of this week. “As you know the numbers are unpredictable,” Lydia Holt, the spokeswoman, said in an email. “Our job is to be prepared and have capacity when/if needed.”
Like the tent city in Texas, the facility in Florida, adjacent to Homestead Air Reserve Base, is a “temporary” or “influx” shelter on federal land. Thus, it is not subject to state regulations and inspections intended to guarantee child welfare — only to a loose set of Health and Human Services guidelines.
In contrast, permanent shelters traditionally used to detain minors must abide by state requirements for staff vetting and training, as well as standards that ensure minors are educated and safe.
The number of children in federal custody has been shrinking rapidly since the Trump administration last month eased a strict security policy that had delayed — often by months — the placement of newly arrived children with sponsors, typically relatives already in the United States.
The Trump administration had required that everyone in a potential sponsor’s household submit fingerprints to the F.B.I. for a background check, which many families, some of whom are undocumented, were unwilling to do. Coupled with a surge in unaccompanied teenagers arriving at the southwest border, mostly from Central America, the policy prompted a shortage — and a scramble — for shelter beds.
To help handle the overflow, the government in June opened the camp at Tornillo, Tex., a collection of tents on a barren patch of desert about 35 miles southeast of El Paso. It quickly grew to house more than 2,800 migrant teenagers. The camp had the look and feel of a military barracks, with what critics described as inadequate health care and education services.
Children had little access to legal services. Instead of several hours of schooling a day, as is offered at licensed shelters for migrant children around the country, children at Tornillo were offered workbooks which they were under no obligation to complete, migrant advocates said.
The Office of Inspector General in November criticized the facility’s failure to conduct F.B.I. fingerprint background checks on staff, and also said it had too few staff members to provide sufficient mental health care.
Eventually, the private nonprofit operating the sprawling desert site informed the government that it did not wish to extend its management contract, setting it up to close.
“This tent city should never have stood in the first place, but it is welcome news that it will be gone,” Will Hurd, the Republican congressman who represents the southwest Texas border region, wrote on Twitter.
The number of migrant children under detention reached record numbers last year, an increase due to both the large numbers of children crossing the border and the roadblocks imposed by the Trump administration to releasing them to family members.
The crunch has eased with the elimination of the policy requiring fingerprints of all adults in any household in which a migrant child is placed. Fingerprints are now only required of the adult who is sponsoring the minor.
As of Jan. 13, about 10,500 migrant minors were held in more than 100 shelters across the country overseen by Health and Human Services, down from about 14,700 in December. Despite the recent decline, the number of children in federal custody remains substantially higher than a year ago, when about 7,550 were staying in shelters.
The news that federal officials plan a significant expansion at the Homestead facility is a clear signal, immigration legal analysts say, that the Trump administration is not changing its policy of holding migrant teenagers in detention, but is merely changing the location.
Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon who led a congressional delegation to Tornillo last month and pressed for it to be shuttered, said that the expansion of Homestead shows that “the Trump administration has not changed its fundamental strategy of deliberately hurting kids as part of its ongoing strategy of deterrence.”
“It’s a shell game of moving kids from one facility to another,” Mr. Merkley said in a telephone interview.
The Homestead site, about 30 miles south of Miami, housed teenage migrants from June 2016 to April 2017, but closed after the number of children entering the country dwindled. It reopened in March 2018 amid the surge in arrivals and is now the country’s biggest detention site for unaccompanied minors.
The facility’s “temporary” or “influx” shelter status suggests that children will be kept there only briefly. But the tent city at Tornillo was also intended to be a temporary home for a few hundred migrant children. Instead, its population multiplied and the stay of many children dragged on for months.
The children at Homestead sleep in dorms with bunk beds, take classes inside a massive tent and eat meals at a dining hall. Some of the dorms are fashioned from former military barracks. As at other shelters, including state-licensed facilities, the children are not free to leave the site, which is fenced and guarded.
“Homestead has the same maladies that Tornillo suffered from,” said Holly Cooper, a co-director of the immigration law clinic at the University of California at Davis.
Ms. Cooper will visit Homestead next month with a team to assess whether it is in compliance with the terms of a 1997 consent decree, known as the Flores agreement, establishing guidelines for the treatment of minors in government custody. “We have received multiple complaints about the facility and will make the investigation of the conditions in Homestead a top priority for the coming months,” she said.
The Miami-Dade County public school district has not been asked to provide teachers to work at the Homestead facility, even though the district staffed classrooms when the shelter previously opened under the Obama administration.
The schools superintendent in Miami-Dade County, Alberto Carvalho, said that he raised a concern about the failure to provide certified teachers at Homestead in a letter last summer to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, but that she did not directly address his question. “It would appear to me that there is a continued inequity of the quality and standards of education provided to children in that shelter,” Mr. Carvalho said.
Federal officials said the government was committed to providing excellent care for migrant youths at the facility, and said all staff members receive F.B.I. fingerprint background checks. “Even though Homestead is on federal property, we continue to maintain the high standards of care expected in our permanent shelters,” Ms. Holt, the H.H.S. spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.