Five Awful Stories About Miami's Child-Migrant Compound

Five Awful Stories About Miami's Child-Migrant Compound
Photography by Monica McGivern
Migrant children are still being housed without parents in Miami-Dade County. The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children is still operational: Kids are living on the compound, taking classes there, seeing doctors, and playing sports on the recreation fields. But they're not allowed to leave, and as of earlier this summer, some of them had been ripped away from their parents at the U.S. border in contravention of international law.

President Obama opened the shelter in 2016 to house unaccompanied minors who'd arrived at the border, but it was later closed. It quietly reopened under President Trump earlier this year with little public disclosure until New Times visited the facility in June and discovered more than 1,000 children inside. Since then, the stories coming out of the shelter have been uniformly sad: A 15-year-old Honduran girl ran away, for example, and was caught at an auto-parts store and taken back. Here's the lowdown on why the place should be permanently shut down already:

1. The family of one former immigrant housed there described the facility as "child prison."

In late 2016, a 17-year-old Guatemalan teen fled her home. Her father was a prominent local politician and had been receiving repeated extortion threats over the past year. He had continually refused to pay, so his enemies warned they would kidnap his daughter. The threat was serious enough that she made the long, treacherous journey to the United States, where her aunt and uncle lived, to seek asylum.

Instead of being released to stay with her family while the government evaluated her plea for safety, though, the teen had to battle for months to get out of a facility she and her guardians described as a "child prison" — the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children.

"It took long," the young woman told New Times in Spanish this past Friday. (Her name and the dates of her time in custody have been obscured to protect her identity because she still has an open immigration case.) "I was detained for three months, and I was worried about the time [the process was taking]."

The woman, who is now an adult, is the first former detainee at the Homestead camp to speak publicly about her experience since New Times broke the news last week that the site had quietly reopened to house more than 1,000 migrant children — including dozens separated from their parents under President Donald Trump's new border policy.

The woman said that, after being bounced through multiple prison-like detention centers, she was glad to enter the comparatively clean and orderly Homestead facility. But her family and her lawyer say that they were repeatedly threatened by social workers and that the teen cried through her scheduled phone calls.

"She came into the country, and they bounced her from place to place until she ended up there in Homestead," the woman's guardian tells New Times, "and we just bent over backward with whatever it would take to get her out of what I like to call 'child prison.'"

2. The company running the facility once paid a $3.8 million medical-fraud settlement.

In Homestead, a federal compound housing as many as 1,000 migrant children is managed in part by a federal contractor based in Cape Canaveral called Comprehensive Health Services, which has held a contract at the Homestead camp since February 2018. Sen. Bill Nelson says 94 children at Comprehensive Health's facility have been taken from their parents by U.S. immigration agents.

According to a New Times review of past state documents, that contractor is operating in the Sunshine State thanks to a handy assist from Gov. Rick Scott's administration. In December 2016, Comprehensive Health announced a new project that would "create 150 new jobs" at its Cape Canaveral headquarters — and in exchange, the state in July 2017 awarded the company a $600,000 "qualified target-industry" tax-incentive package.

But just as Scott was negotiating that tax break, Comprehensive Health was hashing out a deal with the feds to pay a $3.8 million settlement to the U.S. Department of Justice over a medical-fraud claim. After Comprehensive Health paid the fine in February 2017 (without admitting any wrongdoing), Florida gave the company the tax breaks anyway.

3. One worker there was convicted of sexually exploiting a child

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.

4. ICE takes kids on their 18th birthdays and sends them to adult detention facilities.

When one of his abusive mother's gangbanger friends held a gun to his chest and threatened to pull the trigger, Nolbiz Orellana knew he'd die in Honduras. So this past January, the then-17-year-old made the harrowing journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, crossed over, and asked for asylum.

Instead of releasing him to his relatives in Nebraska, though, the feds sent him to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. Orellana spent three months in the remote South Miami-Dade facility until April 8 — his birthday.

That's when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at the children's shelter, slapped handcuffs on Orellana's wrists, chained them to his waist, and shackled his legs together. The agents drove Orellana to the Broward Transitional Center, an infamous immigration jail in Pompano Beach, where he was thrown into a cell with men twice his age.

Orellana's saga isn't just shocking — it's also illegal, say Miami immigration attorneys who have succeeded in forcing ICE to release several other 18-year-olds in recent months. Even worse, they say what happened to the Honduran refugee seems to have become ICE's national policy.

"When they turn 18, it's basically, 'Happy birthday,' and then they slap on handcuffs and take them off to adult detention centers," says Lisa Lehner, an attorney with the nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice who is representing Orellana.

Since April, at least 14 children at the Homestead center have been handcuffed on their 18th birthdays and taken to a jail cell in Broward, Lehner says. And at least one of those kids had been separated from his father under the Trump administration's since-abandoned policy to rip apart families that crossed the border together.

5. The facility costs $500,000 per day to run.

The Trump Administration did not need to rip children from their families at the U.S. border. The White House simply chose to do that to intentionally broadcast our nation's cruelty and barbarity to the world. Trump's cabinet also does not need to house unaccompanied kids in tent cities, including the child-migrant camp currently operating in Homestead, Florida. Many immigrant-rights groups say it's easier and more humane to let migrant kids live with U.S. relatives or foster groups.

But instead, according to publicly available documents published this week, Americans are blowing $500,000 per day in public funds to keep the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in South Miami-Dade running. The shelter opened under Barack Obama to hold children who were showing up to the U.S. border, mostly from Central American countries such as Honduras and El Salvador. It closed in 2017, but New Times first reported in June that the Trump Administration had reopened it without telling the public and had quietly placed more than 1,000 children there.

(As it turns out, documents show multiple politicians from both political parties were told the facility was going to reopen under Trump, but, oddly, forgot to tell anyone.)

Now, the news site Quartz has dug up publicly available budget documents showing just how much money Americans are spending to keep the shelter open: about $17 million every month. According to federal budget documents, the United States has spent $140 million since February to operate the shelter.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.