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‘Children should not be detained:’ Homestead center violating rights, Amnesty says

Immigrants play soccer at the U.S. government's newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, Tuesday, July 9, 2019. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)
By Monique O. Madan Miami Herald

MIAMI – Citing what it calls a slew of human-rights violations, Amnesty International is calling on the U.S. government to shut down the Homestead detention center before children in Miami-Dade start school again next month.

The global human-rights organization published a 41-page report Thursday on the Homestead facility – still the nation’s largest center for unaccompanied migrant children – after touring the shelter earlier this week.

“The USA provides certain legal protections for unaccompanied children because of their unique vulnerabilities. The USA is violating its human rights obligations at Homestead by holding unaccompanied children in prolonged and indefinite detention,” the report said. “The current state of prolonged detention of unaccompanied children across the (Office of Refugee Resettlement) shelter system violates the USA’s human rights obligations.”

According to the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement – which governs the detention, treatment and release of all migrant children in the United States – ORR is required to release kids within 20 days, a benchmark that has been missed by dozens, if not hundreds of days. The settlement also says that unaccompanied children should be placed in “the least restrictive setting possible,” in accordance with their “best interests.”

Homestead “is a facility designed to warehouse children,” the report said. “It provides care in a large-scale, industrial setting with thousands of children adhering to highly regimented schedules. The children are deprived of individualized care, attention and the freedom to be children in age-appropriate ways.”

It continued: “Children should not be detained. It is never in their best interests. Detention has well-documented negative effects on children’s development and can cause long-term trauma and disability. If children are detained, they must only be detained as a last resort for the shortest possible time and in the least restrictive setting possible.”

The Miami Herald has toured the Homestead facility three times. Children are required to wear wristbands and lanyards with bar codes, are required to walk in single-file lines, are identified by a number rather than by name, and have highly regimented schedules, including five-minute showers and two 10-minute calls to family members a week. The facility is surrounded by tall perimeter walls and has a 24/7 security patrol.

Children are segregated by gender at all times. Boys are referred to as “Romeos,” girls as “Juliettes.” They follow chalked lines when they walk outside, and they are always accompanied or led by a staff member. There is no hugging allowed, even between siblings.

Amnesty International’s report says the detention center is violating the children’s human rights in several ways: “They are provided with insufficient language services, inappropriate remote case-management services, potentially inadequate educational services and an inadequate system to report allegations of sexual abuse.”

The alleged violations have been partially documented over the past year, records show. While the shelter director only reported to Amnesty that there was one sexual abuse allegation, the state Department of Children & Families told the Herald that the agency has received reports that there have been at least seven allegations at Homestead since June of last year and at least 15 others at two smaller South Florida shelters for unaccompanied minors in Miami Gardens and Cutler Bay.

The phone in Homestead to report sexual abuse allegations is “located in an open-air cubicle within five feet of a ping pong table in a recreation room,” the report said. “Such phone booths are wholly inadequate; they do not offer privacy for an individual to report a traumatizing incident of abuse. Under-reporting or a lack of transparency in the reporting of sexual abuse fosters an environment in which staff are not held accountable for custodial sexual misconduct and which does not facilitate the prevention of sexual abuse between children held at the facility.”

How sexual allegations are investigated by federal officials remains somewhat of a mystery. Sexual abuse allegations of any kind are not investigated by local police or by the Department of Children and Families, like any other case would be.

If by chance Miami-Dade police get called to the center on a call of sex abuse, they are turned away by security, police told the Herald.

“Usually if we get a call for sex assault or something it’s because a staffer didn’t know the protocol,” a police spokesman said. “If we end up there we immediately get turned away.”

But because the detention center sits on federal land, and is considered a federal “emergency influx center,” officials say they have the right to skirt local and state regulations.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that contracts with Caliburn – the private company that runs the shelter – “ORR reviews every report of sexual abuse submitted by care providers.”

“When appropriate, ORR issues corrective actions or stops further placement of unaccompanied alien children until the care provider addresses identified issues. (Child Protective Services) investigates allegations of sexual abuse according to state law, and the FBI and the HHS/(Office of Inspector General) investigate allegations according to federal laws and procedures.”

But that part about state law is only partly true, according to the state DCF, which has repeatedly told the Herald the agency isn’t allowed to investigate any allegations or enter the property. HHS would not provide the Herald with any data on sexual assaults at Homestead.

“Because of its designation as a ”temporary influx“ care facility and its location on federal land (the Homestead Air Reserve Base), Homestead is permitted to operate without state licensing and to provide lower standards of care than is required of state-licensed, permanent ORR shelters,” the Amnesty report says. “This temporary influx” designation enables Homestead to evade US legal requirements for unaccompanied children that apply to permanent ORR shelters.“

Homestead first opened as an emergency influx facility in 2016 under former president Barack Obama as the number of incoming migrants at the border first soared. It shut down and then reopened in March 2018 with the same emergency designation.

”The US government is relying on an exemption which should be used in exceptional circumstances only to circumvent its obligations under Flores to provide state-licensed care and other required services for migrant children,“ the report said. ”The long-term operation of Homestead defies its temporary emergency designation.“

The report continues to say that the ”administration has relied on Homestead for well over a year when it could have utilized that time to increase state-licensed, permanent ORR shelter capacity responsibly, in line with the Flores agreement and its human rights obligations.“

The U.S. government realizes that temporary shelters aren’t ”feasible“ for monetary reasons, an HHS spokesman recently told the Herald. On average, a temporary shelter costs the government about $775 per child a day, while a permanent shelter costs around $250.

That’s why the agency is looking at Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix to put up permanent state-licensed shelters that will serve as influx facilities if the agency needs them, HHS spokesman Mark Weber said.

In recent days, the shelter has been moving kids out to reduce the numbers to prepare in case of a hurricane. From as many as 3,000 kids a month ago, the shelter was down as of Thursday to 1,100, and sources inside have told the Herald that hundreds more children are expected to be moved out in the next couple of days.

”HHS is working diligently in collaboration with our network of shelters, including Homestead, to unify unaccompanied alien children (UAC) with parents, close family relatives or other sponsors as safely and quickly as possible,“ HHS said in an email. ”No additional unaccompanied alien children are being placed at Homestead. Homestead is an emergency influx shelter for use when the standard shelter system is near capacity. Given ORR has dramatically reduced the average length of care – from 93 days in November 2018 to 45 days in May 2019 – by speeding up the unification of children with parents, close family relatives or other sponsor and the decline in numbers of (unaccompanied minors) crossing the border, space is beginning to open up in the standard network of shelters.“

But leaders say using the average as a way to measure how long kids have been detained is misleading.

”Amnesty International spoke to one child who had been detained at Homestead for eight months prior to his transfer to another permanent ORR shelter. In other cases, lawyers reported that children had been held for over 100 or even 200 days,“ Amnesty’s report says.

On a call to reporters Thursday morning, Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro questioned the government’s sudden speediness to reunite families.

”If we could have moved these children that quickly, why haven’t we been moving them all along?“ she asked.

Where exactly the children who don’t have sponsors in the U.S. are being placed is not information that HHS will provide. Whether some children were deported is also unknown.

According to the Amnesty report, a 17-year-old boy from Honduras said he discovered he may have been held much longer than necessary because his case manager had misrepresented her efforts.

”She would lie to me and tell me that she spoke to my sponsor every day, when she didn’t,“ he told Amnesty. During his three months at Homestead, he only met with his case manager three times, even though he was rapidly approaching his 18th birthday.

”At each appointment, they had the same conversation regarding the need to get fingerprints from his sponsor, which ultimately took 60 to 70 days. When he was able to speak to his sponsor, he learned that the case manager had not actually contacted the sponsor as frequently as she claimed,“ the report said.

Margaret Huang, Amnesty’s director, told the Herald ”there’s a significant percentage of children being seen by offsite case managers in El Paso and in San Antonio. They speak with them via Google video or Skype and the sessions are not entirely in private, but rather in cubicles with computers.“

”We recognize all the challenges they have, but they have to do better. These temporary emergency facilities are not appropriate for kids,“ she added.

Caliburn, the private company of more than 4,200 employees, told the Miami Herald it’s made serious strides to inform the community about ”our role at the influx shelter and the truth about our compassionate care.“

Last week, the Miami Herald reported that the company joined the South Dade Chamber of Commerce just days before a group of pastors held a press conference in defense of the shelter. The lead pastor’s wife is the chamber’s CEO.

It’s unclear how much Caliburn donated in order to become a member, but memberships online show companies with more than 100 employees pay a minimum of $10,000.

Records show that the company has also made stops at Homestead city hall. About two weeks ago a Caliburn employee asked to meet with the mayor and council in order to ”provide facts to correct misperceptions.“

Earlier this week, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp, Director of Emergency Management Frank Rollason and Police Director Juan Perez were invited to tour the campus by the Federal Protection Services agency, which oversees safety at Homestead.

”The Homestead shelter values it relationship with the community. We value the associations we have already formed and we will continue to fortify that engagement through our outreach,“ a Caliburn spokeswoman said in an email.

The company said it has approached Florida International University in hopes of partnering. However, it won’t disclose any other partnerships it has formed, its strategy for forming them and whether or not it has donated any money.