Before Miami-Dade County's now-infamous child-migrant camp reopened earlier this year under President Trump, the facility operated under President Obama from 2016 through April 2017.
And while the facility was up and running the first time, one worker at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children was sentenced to ten years in prison for sexually exploiting children.
According to federal news releases and previous reports from the Miami Herald, Merice Perez Colon, then age 35, was arrested in 2017 and charged with attempted coercion and enticement of a minor to engage in illicit sexual activity and attempted production of child pornography. Prosecutors said she had sent a boy a series of explicit text messages, including images of herself nude and masturbating. In another set of messages, Perez Colon asked to see the underage boy's penis.
“I want a video of you masturbating," Perez Colon told the child. "Since I already sent you several of mine." The boy reportedly then sent images to her.
According to a federal criminal complaint, Perez Colon met the boy after he was transferred to the Homestead compound July 31, 2016. He was then transferred to a facility in Cutler Bay in September before being released to a relative in South Carolina October 4. According to the complaint, Perez Colon sent the boy the following exchange in Spanish beginning October 10, 2016:
Perez Colon: Where did you find that video? Send me a picture of your penis. Please. With your stupidity, I am heating myself up.
Boy: Oh yummy love.
Perez Colon: Not yummy I need a picture of your penis.
Boy: Calm down love.
She then explicitly asked the boy to travel to Miami to have sex with her, among other requests. According to the complaint, the boy eventually alerted authorities to the exchange, and Perez Colon responded by calling the child and berating him for "ruining her life."
Per the Herald, Perez Colon was convicted that year and sentenced to ten years in prison, followed by 50 years of supervised release.
"All shelters, including those that take in unaccompanied minors who arrive in the United States without adult supervision, should be safe havens," Benjamin Greenberg, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said when the indictment was unsealed. "Youth workers have a duty to protect and serve the minors who reside at these shelters and are under their care."
The connection to the newly reopened facility was first noted today in a joint investigation by Reveal and the Texas Tribune:
“A worker at a FL shelter for migrant children was sentenced to 10 years in prison after she admitted to trading sexually explicit photos/texts with minors at the shelter. That facility later closed but reopened under a more than $30 million contract to house 1,000 children.” https://t.co/3ThAJ1D5i8— marisa kabas (@MarisaKabas) June 20, 2018
Throughout the growing child-migrant crisis caused by the Trump administration, federal officials have claimed the kids held at the executive branch's migrant camps and tent cities are kept in good condition. Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen said this week that the "minors are well taken care of," and notable Trump surrogates on Fox News, including barely concealed white-nationalist TV host Laura Ingraham, have unconscionably compared the detention centers to "summer camps."
Perez Colon's conviction raises questions about the exploitation and treatment of essentially unaccountable, noncitizen migrant kids at government camps. The old case also raises further questions about why, if numerous politicians were informed in February that the federal government was reopening the facility, no one said a word about it publicly.
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The conditions at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children — which reopened in February and now houses nearly 1,200 children, including at least 94 who have been ripped from their parents by immigration officials — remain something of a mystery. Reporters were last allowed inside the facility in 2016 — during that trip, photos show the place seemed clean but prison-like. Children were given space to play videogames indoors and sports outside, but they also slept on cots, were tracked with wristbands, and were watched by armed guards. The kids were not allowed visitors and could make only two outside phone calls per week.
After New Times first confirmed the center had reopened, three lawmakers — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Florida Rep. Kionne McGhee — tried to enter the facility but were blocked by officials from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
"The company running this facility told us we would be welcomed to tour the facility," Nelson tweeted yesterday. "HHS then denied us entry and said that they need 'two weeks notice' to allow us inside. That’s ridiculous and it’s clear this administration is hiding something."
Jessica Lipscomb contributed reporting to this story.