Thirty miles south of the stage where Democratic candidates will appear for tonight's presidential debates, thousands of children are being held in the country's only unlicensed, for-profit shelter for immigrant kids. At the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, some have described crying themselves to sleep or worrying they might never be released.
For months, activists have been urging the candidates to make the trip down to Homestead to see the facility firsthand. Now, with the debates about to begin, several are doing just that. Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke on Sunday announced plans to travel there on Thursday to meet with leaders and activists who oppose the facility. "Beto will be the first presidential candidate to visit the site," his campaign said in a press release.
But California Rep. Eric Swalwell beat him to it. He visited Homestead on Monday, writing in an Instagram post, "These children need homes, NOT a privatized prison."
I'm going to Homestead on Thursday. This administration's inhumane policies of separating families and putting kids in camps must end.— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) June 24, 2019
Late last night, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign announced she would visit the shelter this morning, inviting members of the public to join. On her Facebook page, she shared a video of an audience member at a town hall in Miami asking her to go. "I know your heart is with those children, but we need you there," the audience member said. "We need your presence to bring the press and to bring our national attention."
Warren responded: "I'm going to Homestead tomorrow. Come with me. I'll be there.
"Our government is supposed to reflect our values," she added. "Our government is supposed to keep us safe. But a government that can't tell the difference between a terrorist, a criminal, and a little girl is not a government that is keeping us safe. And it is certainly not a government that reflects our values."
Her campaign later announced it was arranging buses to pick people up downtown and drive them to Homestead for the 10:45 a.m. visit.
Warren's announcement prompted a response from Caliburn, the company that has a multimillion-dollar contract to operate the shelter. In a press release, a spokeswoman said the children receive a "wide range of services" and that their well-being is the company's primary concern.
"Caliburn International is very proud of our efforts to protect vulnerable, unaccompanied young people arriving in the United States," the press release said. "We operate temporary emergency shelters, not private prisons or detention centers. Those who suggest otherwise are intentionally creating a false and deceptive description to mislead the public and score political points."
The Miami Herald's Monique Madan is reporting that Bernie Sanders' wife, Jane, will also visit the shelter later today. Candidates Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are expected to travel to Homestead tomorrow, followed by author and activist Marianne Williamson on Friday.
South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell invited presidential candidates to visit the shelter with her on Friday. "Immigration reform should be a top issue in this presidential election, and every 2020 presidential candidate ought to visit the Homestead Detention Center and join us in denouncing Trump's cruel immigration policies," she said in a statement. "We need to place these children in safe homes and facilities and close this detention center down."
Tmrw will be interesting. @Alyssa_Milano will pass the Homestead detention center in the AM, then @SenWarren and @SenSanders’ wife, @janeosanders. Thursday: @BilldeBlasio, @BetoORourke and @TulsiGabbard. Friday: @marwilliamson.— Monique O. Madan (@MoniqueOMadan) June 26, 2019
Let’s see if anybody makes it inside. @MiamiHerald
Herald reporter David Smiley says candidates the following candidates have RSVP'd so far: former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Three South Florida Democratic congresswomen, including Mucarsel-Powell, were turned away in April. The Department of Health and Human Services said it needed two weeks' notice, even though newly passed legislation prohibits the department from denying lawmakers access to a facility to conduct oversight.
Even if the candidates can't get in, activists say their presence at Homestead is important.
"National media's going to be there, and we have to take advantage of any opportunity that we have to shed light on this," says Alessandra Mondolfi, who's among a group that has kept up a daily presence outside the facility.
In fact, her group is working on an installation meant to look like the shelter, which it plans on setting up outside the Arsht Center before the debates tonight and tomorrow. For the candidates who don't go to Homestead, Mondolfi says, "we're bringing Homestead to them."