In fall 2018, a 14-year-old girl fled Mexico after a violent group of men killed three of her uncles, broke into her home, and threatened her at gunpoint. She arrived in the United States November 6 and was briefly taken to what she called a "jail-like" holding facility in San Diego. Named "M.C.L." in court filings, she has a mother who lives about 150 miles north of San Diego. Yet federal officials didn't send her home. They transferred the teen all the way to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, the now-infamous federal facility in rural South Miami-Dade that will hold as many as 2,350 kids by the end of 2019.
According to a class-action lawsuit filed last week by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), among the nation's most prominent civil rights groups, M.C.L. is one of multiple young people who are being used by the Trump administration as "bait" to hunt down immigrants in the United States to deport. The suit alleges the practice is widespread among the 100-plus federal immigrant-detention facilities across the nation — including kids at Homestead, which is slated to become the largest facility in the country.
The SPLC filed the lawsuit after a whistleblower leaked documents showing the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) was sharing sponsor information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The whistleblower stated the policy was adopted as part of the Trump administration's "family separation" effort, whereby kids were separated from their parents at the border in what is almost certainly a violation of international law. The SPLC says it was designed to intimidate adults so they don't sponsor immigrant kids.
According to the lawsuit:
As revealed by a recently leaked memorandum, the Trump administration decided to deter illegal immigration by enacting a policy to use detained immigrant children as bait to arrest immigrants who come forward to sponsor them, even while explicitly acknowledging that this would prolong the detention of immigrant children. To do this, they twisted the sponsorship process from its Congressionally mandated purpose of ensuring children’s safety while placing them in the least restrictive setting as quickly as possible, introducing steps counterproductive to that goal that were instead designed to facilitate civil immigration enforcement against sponsors.
Some national news outlets reported on the suit last week, but the South Florida media hasn't covered the plight of the kids at Homestead. New Times broke news last year that the Trump administration had quietly reopened the detention center.
The suit lists multiple cases in which the feds adamantly refuse to return children to their parents. M.C.L.'s mother, for example, disclosed she was once charged with insurance fraud in 2015. Because of that, the suit says Homestead officials have "told M.C.L. that the reason she has been detained so long is because her mother committed a crime, and that she may have to go up for adoption due to that."
Thus, M.C.L. says she is now trapped in the Miami detention camp while immigration officials give her mother changing information about the date the teen will be freed. M.C.L.'s mom says she was told her daughter would be released January 9, but that didn't happen. Moreover, M.C.L. says she is not receiving her proper asthma medication while at the Homestead detention camp.
"M.C.L. is desperate to leave the Homestead facility and join her mother, stepfather, and half-sisters in California," the lawsuit states. The document adds that her mom, Luviano Vargas, "feels betrayed and distressed by the shifting representations as to when her child will come home."
The lawsuit also explicitly cites previous reporting by New Times: In 2018, then-managing editor Tim Elfrink reported that when children at the Homestead camp turn 18, they are routinely handcuffed and sent to an adult immigrant-detention camp in Pompano Beach, the Broward Transitional Center. Immigration lawyers told New Times last year that the practice violates federal law — and the SPLC's lawyers agree.
"Another effect of prolonged detention, and one that is known to ORR, is that when children detained in ORR’s custody reach their birthday, ORR no longer considers them subject to its detention and custody," the suit reads. Federal law "provides that most of these children should generally be released upon turning 18. In fact, however, most of the children are sent to ICE custody instead."
The suit adds that a second child, "E.A.R.R.," has been stuck at the Homestead camp while his father fights to free the boy. He survived a horrific life in Guatemala, where he lived with his mother after his father fled to the United States. Though his dad called him weekly and sent money, his mom abandoned him. His grandmother cared for him until she was no longer able, after which he moved in with his cousin — who beat him and locked him in a room for long periods. The boy fled to the United States in July 2018.
E.A.R.R.'s father, Ramos Chilel, now says immigration officials seem to be intentionally asking for endless amounts of information in an effort to make sponsorship difficult. Caseworkers told Chilel the boy needed his own room — so he rented one in the house in which he was living. One of Chilel's roommates refused to consent to being fingerprinted, so the boy's dad moved into another home with his brother and nephew. Chilel has even flown to Miami to be fingerprinted and attempted to pick up his boy, but immigration workers keep stalling.
The suit continues:
Since July 2018, Mr. Ramos Chilel has made three additional submissions in response to case worker requests, each time paying someone for writing services. He has been fingerprinted, as have a prior roommate, his brother, and his nephew. All four traveled to Miami for fingerprinting at the case worker’s request, which has cost Mr. Ramos Chilel hundreds of dollars in transportation costs. In Mr. Ramos Chilel’s case, delays in fingerprint processing extended to 89 days. At that point, the case worker said the results were no longer valid, and told him second prints would be necessary.
Mr. Chilel’s brother and nephew have also complied with all requests for information. Besides the fingerprinting, they prepared statements attesting to their lack of criminal history and their encounters with immigration authorities. They also signed releases to authorize background checks for abuse and neglect.
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But the suit says the boy is still detained "with no explanation for his continued separation from his father." The SPLC says the child has developed severe headaches from the stress of being detained; they have become so severe he at one point began screaming in agony. Federal officials then took Chilel's son to a hospital. Chilel says the boy's caseworkers threatened him about taking part in the SPLC lawsuit.
Last year, New Times spoke to the family of a Guatemalan girl whose sponsors described being similarly stalled and threatened by Homestead caseworkers. The girl's uncle, who asked not to be named, said one caseworker often called late at night and threatened to have the girl sent to an adult deportation facility when she turned 18. The uncle described the Homestead camp as a "child prison."
The federal government is not the lone defendant in the lawsuit. The SPLC is also suing Comprehensive Health Services, the largest private contractor at the Homestead camp. Business has been great for Comprehensive Health in the past few years: Florida Gov. Rick Scott gave the Cape Canaveral-based company a huge tax-incentive package mere months after it paid the government a $3 million medical-fraud settlement. Last year, Comprehensive Health scored a new contract to run the Homestead camp worth nearly $200 million.
Business is so good, in fact, that a group of Washington investors bought Comprehensive Health in 2018 and now hopes to take the company public by selling $100 million in stock to Wall Street investors. The company that bought Comprehensive Health — Caliburn International — was set up by a group of investors that once employed White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.