When an Amnesty International delegation visited the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in April, there were at least 97 children who had no one to care for them in the United States. In a comment that stunned the Amnesty group, the Homestead facility's then-program director Leslie Wood said it was better for kids like them to be deported than placed with someone for the purpose of keeping them in the country, because they might be trafficked.
"That was an extraordinary statement," Amnesty International researcher Denise Bell tells New Times. "I think all of our jaws dropped when she said that."
Amnesty included the comment in a new report that calls for the immediate closure of the facility, claiming that the indefinite detention of immigrant children constitutes a violation of international standards of human rights. In the report, the organization says Wood's rationale was alarming and "could result in children being unlawfully returned to harm in the same countries of origin that they fled for their lives." Children, it continues, "have the right to seek asylum and should not be returned to a country where they may be at risk of persecution or other serious human rights abuses."
A spokeswoman for Caliburn International, the for-profit company that operates the Homestead facility, didn't immediately respond to inquiries about the alleged comments.
There have been past instances of the government placing immigrant children in harm's way. A 2016 Associated Press investigation found more than two dozen kids who were subjected to sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, or forced labor after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lowered its safety standards during the surge of kids crossing the border alone that began in 2013. A Senate report showed the Obama administration failed to properly screen sponsors during that time.
Bell says the government's vetting system must be rigorous. But she says children should always have the opportunity to be placed with trusted sponsors rather than returned to the country they fled.
"It's their fundamental right to seek asylum and decide the course of their case," she says.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) groups children's cases into four categories of sponsors: Category 1 means immediate family, Category 2 means close family, Category 3 means distant relatives and unrelated adults, and Category 4 means no sponsors have been identified. Licensed shelters can also care for children. ORR gives preference to relatives.
In an April deposition, an unidentified ORR field specialist who reviews Homestead cases said distant family or unrelated adults can be rejected if there's no proof of a prior relationship, adding that "obviously, we have to look at the possibility of trafficking when you're dealing with an unrelated sponsor." If there's no proof of a prior relationship with an unrelated sponsor, that's an automatic denial, the field specialist said in the deposition, which was conducted by attorneys seeking to enforce the Flores agreement, which regulates treatment of migrant children.
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"The bottom line is always safety," she said.
Asked whether ORR consulted any studies before creating the rule that children cannot be released to unrelated adults with whom they have no prior relationship, she said she was not aware. She also denied knowing of any other child protective services or agency that enforces a blanket policy of denying release to unrelated adults who have no prior relationship with a child.
However, in an apparent contradiction of the comments made to Amnesty International, she said that if a child has no viable sponsor and could have a legal right to remain in the United States, he or she would be released to a local shelter.
Bell says Wood's comments "betray a sort of failure to understand" the rights of children to seek asylum, though Amnesty International would have to investigate whether a child has ever been deported for lack of a sponsor. In a list of recommendations included with its report, the group suggested Congress conduct public hearings covering the scope of deportation from the facility.