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Recapping the Five Biggest Controversies at the Homestead Migrant Children's Camp

The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied ChildrenEXPAND
The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children
Photo courtesy of Carrie Feit
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The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, a for-profit detention center for migrant children and the largest camp of its kind in the U.S., opened under former president Barack Obama's administration. It held more than 8,500 unaccompanied kids from the time it opened in June 2016 until it closed in April 2017 owing to declining numbers of migrant children.

When it reopened in March 2018, the detention center became a monument of Donald Trump's child-separation and zero-tolerance immigration policies. Kids reported crying themselves to sleep and even self-harming at the Homestead shelter. They were not allowed to hug or comfort one another. Some reported being sexually abused by staff. Human-rights advocates and lawmakers worked to get the facility shut down, and it did in October 2019.

But under President Joe Biden's new administration, the facility is set to reopen, as the Miami Herald first reported this week. Advocates say the move is disappointing and that kids don't belong in the detention center, which is now called the Biscayne Influx Care Facility. Immigrant-rights groups say that while Biden ran as a pro-immigrant president, his administration's actions on child detention prove otherwise. They're urging Biden to reconsider opening the facility and reminding the administration of the various human-rights abuses children have suffered there.

As a refresher, here are five of the biggest controversies that surrounded the Homestead child detention center.

Children in the common area of the Homestead migrant shelter.
Children in the common area of the Homestead migrant shelter.
Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Reports of sexual abuse at the facility preceded Trump's administration. Migrants in U.S. detention reported more than 4,500 cases of sexual abuse between October 2014 and July 2018. Before the Homestead site reopened in 2018, the federal government was aware of at least five prior allegations of sexual abuse there, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services documents. The documents showed five reports of sexual abuse at the Homestead facility from August 2016 through April 2017. And when the facility reopened in March 2018, at least two more children reported being sexually assaulted there.

Activists rally in Homestead to show their concern for children being held in facilities, separate from their immigrant families.EXPAND
Activists rally in Homestead to show their concern for children being held in facilities, separate from their immigrant families.
Photo by Monica McGivern

Amnesty International said the facility constitutes a human-rights violation. In July 2019, Amnesty International, a U.K.-based NGO, issued a report saying the U.S. was violating human-rights obligations by holding teenagers in "prolonged and indefinite detention." The report said children should be detained only as a last resort, for the shortest period possible, and in the least restrictive setting possible. The organization demanded that the U.S. government close the detention center, transfer the children to smaller, licensed shelters, and stop using temporary, unlicensed shelters for extended periods.

Recapping the Five Biggest Controversies at the Homestead Migrant Children's Camp
Illustration by Scott Anderson

Children feared they would never be free to see their parents again. The U.S. government wanted people to believe the Homestead center was a humane, safe, and healthy place for unaccompanied migrant children. A Washington D.C.-based lobbying firm went as far as to suggest that the government make promotional videos to paint the facility in a better light.

But in hundreds of pages of federal court records filed in 2019, the children told their own stories. Teenage girls were forced to care for parentless babies. Children were not allowed to hug, shake hands, or console each other. They cried themselves to sleep. Guards yelled at them to remain quiet, told them they weren't wanted in the United States, and confiscated friendship bracelets they made one another. Some kids cried inconsolably when they learned their parents had been deported.

Activists with the group Witness: Tornillo. Target: Homestead protest outside the Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children.EXPAND
Activists with the group Witness: Tornillo. Target: Homestead protest outside the Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children.
Photo by Carrie Feit

The facility is located near polluted areas where the U.S. military dumped hazardous chemicals. It's well-documented that the detention center stands in close proximity to toxic U.S. military Superfund sites. The American Friends Service Committee released a report in September 2019 showing that the sites contain soil and water contaminated by dangerous levels of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other chemicals. The study didn't cite evidence of a link between the presence of toxic chemicals and children's exposure to them. But when the study was released, advocates demanded the federal government produce evidence that it had conducted soil testing to make sure children didn't come in contact with lead or arsenic while in detention. There's no indication the feds ever did so.

Recapping the Five Biggest Controversies at the Homestead Migrant Children's CampEXPAND
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services / Flickr

At one point, an advertisement for a job at the detention center said workers were required to be able to physically restrain a child. In April 2019, advocates for the children in detention noticed a concerning detail in a job advertisement to become a youth care worker at the Homestead facility. Apart from being 21 years old, possessing a high school diploma, passing a background check, and being bilingual, applicants were required to "at all times be physically able to run, jump, lunge, twist, push, pull, apply approved restraint techniques and otherwise manage or coerce the full weight of an infant or adolescent." The listing was eventually taken down, but it raised alarm bells among activist groups because there was so little knowledge about what went on inside the shelter. 

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