Some teenagers have languished for months behind the tall chain-link fences of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, the nation's only for-profit detention center for migrant kids. But in a report released Wednesday, Amnesty International says children should be detained only as a last resort, for the shortest period possible, and in the least restrictive setting possible. By holding the 13-to-17-year-olds in "prolonged and indefinite detention," the organization says, the United States is violating its human-rights obligations.
With the report's release, Amnesty International is calling for the closure of the 3,200-bed facility run by Comprehensive Health Services, a subsidiary of Caliburn International. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should shutter the camp as soon as possible; transfer the children to smaller, licensed shelters that meet human-rights standards; and end its practice of using temporary, unlicensed shelters for extended lengths of time, the group says.
"This is an industrial processing line for children who are waiting to be reunified with their parents, with their families, and who are seeking safety here," Amnesty International researcher Denise Bell tells New Times. "It truly is a warehouse, and it's not child-centric care."
Amnesty sent a delegation to Homestead in April. Its members found fault with the facility's "highly restrictive" setting and its system for reporting sexual abuse. For instance, a phone was located just a few feet from a ping-Pong table, so no privacy was available. The delegation also criticized the case-management system, in which children speak by video to case managers in Texas, and the lack of services available to children who speak languages other than Spanish.
Criticism of the so-called shelter has ramped up in recent weeks, with multiple Democratic presidential candidates visiting and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform launching an investigation. Three South Florida congresswomen, as well as Massachusetts senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, have called for the facility to be shuttered. Meanwhile, attorneys who have visited the camp released dozens of affidavits from children there who described being lonely, depressed, and even suicidal.
The facility opened in 2016, during the Obama administration, when a surge of children crossed the border alone. It closed when the flow of children slowed and was reopened by President Trump in February 2018. Because the shelter is classified as temporary, the government says it is not subject to the Flores agreement, a 1997 Supreme Court settlement that requires migrant children be released within 20 days. Attorneys disagree and are pushing for the agreement to be enforced.
The Trump administration says the shelter is needed to handle a sharp increase in unaccompanied children arriving in the United States. But in its report, Amnesty International says the "true emergency was one of the administration's own making," pointing to an agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in which information about potential sponsors was shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Sponsors were required to use fingerprints, and ICE was allowed to use their information for immigration enforcement.
This has made potential sponsors fearful to come forward, the report says, and greatly increased the amount of time children spend waiting to be placed. As a result, the kids have spent weeks or months at Homestead. One of them interviewed by Amnesty International said he had been there eight months.
"This information-sharing policy has perpetuated family separation by another name," the report says. "It has chilled the willingness of potential sponsors to identify themselves and resulted in the unlawful prolonged detention of children."
The fingerprint requirement was dropped in December, and the appropriations bill signed in February 2019 barred ICE from beginning enforcement actions against a sponsor based on ORR information. Since then, the average stay at Homestead has decreased: In mid-January, more than 140 children had spent 100 days or more at the facility, and 26 had spent 200 days or more there, according to the lawyers who are suing to enforce the Flores agreement. By April, HHS reported an average stay of 52 days, while Homestead staff told a visiting Amnesty International delegation the number was down from 89 to 64.
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But Amnesty says children should not be detained at all. International human-rights standards call for all actions regarding a child to be guided by the individual's best interests. By that standard, children should be detained only for the shortest time possible and in the least restrictive setting possible. They should never be detained indefinitely.
"Under international law, individuals can only be detained when their detention is provided by law, necessary to fulfill a legitimate objective, and proportionate to that objective," the report says. "In the exceptional circumstances where children's detention complies with these requirements, it should be for the shortest possible time and in the least restrictive setting."
The group concludes with a series of recommendations. It urgently wants Congress to hold public hearings on Homestead covering topics such as conditions of detention, the longest periods children have been detained, and the scope of deportation from the facility. It demands HHS close the facility as soon as possible, move quickly to place children with appropriate sponsors, and end the information-sharing agreement with the Department of Homeland Security. And it wants the Trump administration to stop the routine detention of children and ensure all agencies comply with international standards.
"This is no home for children," Bell says. "Children should not be detained, and they should not be detained here."