When the Democratic presidential debates were held in Miami back in June 2019, several candidates visited the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, an unlicensed and for-profit detention center that held thousands of migrant children who came to the U.S. without their parents throughout the administrations of presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The shelter became the subject of national scorn because of reports of sexual abuse, negligent hiring practices, overcrowding, and human-rights violations. Some children described crying themselves to sleep at night, worrying they would never be released.
The Democratic candidates and campaign representatives who visited Homestead that summer — Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marianne Williamson, Elizabeth Warren, John Hickenlooper, Bill de Blasio, and Tulsi Gabbard, plus Bernie Sanders' wife and adviser Jane — made some speeches, stood on ladders to get a look at the shelter behind a tall fence, and summoned the attention of national media outlets.
Conspicuously absent was Joe Biden, who announced his candidacy for president in April 2019 and served as vice president when the Obama administration opened the shelter in 2016.
Just a few months after the Democratic debates, the shelter was shuttered in October 2019. But this morning, the Miami Herald reported that the Biden administration plans to reopen the Homestead center, which is now called the Biscayne Influx Care Facility.
Immigrant-rights and social-justice groups who previously ran a grassroots campaign to shut down the facility are already decrying the decision to reopen the shelter.
Lis-Marie Alvarado, director of the American Friends Service Committee in Florida, one of the organizations that advocated for the center to be shuttered, tells New Times the Biden administration has no business reopening the facility.
"This is not a place for children," Alvarado says. "This is a place that is going to be impossible to maintain COVID safety regulations. We're already putting these children in danger. This detention center doesn't have safety measures for hurricanes. The operators hire random people who don't have experience or knowledge on how to work with children, especially children facing trauma from leaving their home countries. They're at risk of getting sexually assaulted, and many of them did. They have zero access to education. They just draw on little papers the whole day and play soccer. There is zero investment in them."
Alvarado says she's disappointed that her organizations and others will have to fight the same fight, but she says they'll do everything in their power to block the detention center from reopening.
"I condemn the actions of the Biden administration for being a hypocrite and calling for family reunification while at the same time opening these influx centers," Alvarado says. "His rhetoric may not be anti-immigrant, but his actions are. This is shameful, disgusting, and indefensible."
Activist Thomas Kennedy, who was political director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition when the shelter was operating in 2019, says the facility may have opened under the Obama administration, but it became a symbol of family separation and the inhumane, no-tolerance immigration policies of the Trump administration.
"We have to do better than this," Kennedy says.
He says it's incomprehensible that Biden would reopen a detention center rife with humanitarian and sexual abuse.
"Children should be released to family members waiting for them in the United States," he says. "They should be released to foster guardians. But reopening this center that's run by for-profit contractors is not it, and it highlights that the immigration system is a business."
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat who represented Homestead in Congress from 2018 to 2020, has faith that the Biden administration will reconsider its plan to reopen the detention center.
"I do personally believe that President Joe Biden is now trying to run [his presidency] on the issues that he told all of us he cared about the most — doing the right thing for immigrants, minority communities, healthcare, climate," she tells New Times. "The fact is there should not be any for-profit company running immigration detention centers or prisons. Everything about [Homestead] felt like a prison to me."
While she says she hopes the new administration will do the right thing, she acknowledges that reopening the facility also reopens old wounds.
"One of the things I also think the Biden administration needs to understand is that immigrants were used as scapegoats for all the attacks by Trump," she says. "They were criminalized by the Trump administration. Families were separated by the Trump administration. For [Biden] one month into office to open up a facility that was used in family separation is not understanding the pain that immigrant communities and Latino communities have gone through."
Mucarsel-Powell says many children who were detained in Homestead were escaping violence in their home countries. Some girls experienced sexual violence. They already came with trauma, she says, and to place them in prison-like facilities wasn't good for their social and emotional development. She says she believes small nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities, are better suited to give unaccompanied minors the care and homes they need.
She also says the U.S. government needs to take a good look at why so many unaccompanied children cross the border.
"There's a need to look at the root of the problem. Why are we receiving these children at the border?" she says. "Look at what's happening in Venezuela, Colombia, and other countries. It's a crisis that we have. This is a bigger problem."
And it needs a better solution than a detention center, she says.
Advocates say reopening the shelter also would be dangerous to the children's health. It's well-documented that the detention facility stands next to several toxic U.S. military Superfund sites. The American Friends Service Committee released a 12-page report in September 2019 showing that the sites are surrounded by soil and water contaminated by dangerous levels of lead, mercury, arsenic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and trichloroethene.
The study doesn't cite evidence that children at the Homestead camp were exposed to toxic chemicals. But when the study was released, advocates demanded the federal government produce evidence that it conducted soil testing to make sure children didn't come in contact with lead or arsenic while in detention. It does not appear the feds ever did so.
The Herald reports that the Homestead detention center will have security services provided by two private contractors, Federal Police Services and Constellis.
It's not yet known who will operate the center. Caliburn International, the for-profit contractor that used to run the facility, has ties to John Kelly, Trump's former Homeland Security chief and White House chief of staff.