After New Times yesterday broke the news that President Trump's Office of Refugee Resettlement had quietly reopened a heavily guarded compound outside Miami and placed an estimated 1,000 children there, reporters descended. Security guards at the facility first threatened a New Times journalist with arrest and later did the same to reporters for the Miami Herald and WPLG, who stuck around to photograph the site near Homestead Air Reserve Base.
But this morning, a sitting U.S. senator plans to visit, and he'll be much harder to shoo away. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida's highest-ranking Democrat, says he's heading to the facility to check in on the welfare of the hundreds of children secretly shipped to the base.
"Heading to Homestead, Florida tomorrow to check on the roughly 1,000 migrant children reportedly being held there," Nelson tweeted just after 7:45 p.m. yesterday. "The Trump administration needs to stop this inhumane policy of separating families at the border immediately — we, as a society, are better than this!"
For the centrist Democrat, the visit is a helpful attempt to do something about the Trump migrant crisis amid a tough reelection campaign against Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Politico Florida reported last week that Nelson has a problem with name recognition in the Sunshine States despite his 30-plus-year career in politics.
Still, even if the senator's visit is an election-year spectacle, immigrant activists are rightfully happy to have Nelson drumming up opposition to Trump's brutal policy of separating children from parents at the border.
Heading to Homestead, Florida tomorrow to check on the roughly 1,000 migrant children reportedly being held there. The Trump administration needs to stop this inhumane policy of separating families at the border immediately – we, as a society, are better than this!— Senator Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) June 18, 2018
Nelson's tour will continue what has been a chaotic 24 hours for the center, which had been operating basically in secret until U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz disclosed yesterday in a meeting with immigrant activists that the shelter was operational and housing up to 1,000 children.
The facility sits on the grounds of the former Job Corps vocational boarding school next to Homestead Air Reserve Base; it was converted into a "temporary" shelter for unaccompanied minors under President Obama.
It's still unclear exactly how many children are really inside the facility. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has so far ignored New Times' requests for comment, but an agency spokesperson told the Herald late yesterday that "Homestead is an active temporary unaccompanied alien children program facility." The agency repeatedly refused to say whether the children had been brought to the facility after crossing the border by themselves or had been ripped from their parents under Trump's new policies. The United Nations says that practice is illegal, and Catholic leaders have called the policy "evil."
Reporters were last allowed inside the facility in 2016, when the Miami Herald noted that children were subject to strict bedtime routines, tagged with wristbands that tracked their movements, and followed almost constantly by armed guards. The kids were not allowed visitors or access to the internet and were given only two outside phone calls per week. In 2016, HHS uploaded its own photo album of the center, showing a prison-like facility outfitted with a few special touches, such as classrooms, for children.
That year, reporters noted the then-200 migrants at the facility had been flown in from other parts of the country. WPLG reported yesterday afternoon that the latest arrivals to the so-called shelter were flown in just last week.
The facility closed in 2016 after a lull in border apprehensions under the Obama administration. Immigrant activists working in Miami told New Times yesterday that the facility had quietly reopened about two or three months ago, which HHS spokesperson Kenneth Wolfe later confirmed to the Herald.
There’s a soccer game at the reopened federal facility in Homestead for children in immigration custody. Looks like teenagers. pic.twitter.com/LPKIFgb2on— Doug Hanks (@doug_hanks) June 18, 2018
Security guards tell us “no recording”, but the streets around the Homestead shelter are public roads.— Glenna Milberg (@GlennaOn10) June 18, 2018
Note to HHS: we are mindful & respectful of young migrants’ privacy. But public has a right to document their situation & care ... @WPLGLocal10 pic.twitter.com/2218y3vOwc
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Later yesterday afternoon, WPLG reporter Glenna Milberg uncovered federal work contracts tied to the facility. A company called Comprehensive Health Services runs the facility and had posted in February that the center had space for only 500 kids. The posting was amended in May to add 500 more beds.
Millions of people around the world have reacted with horror to photos of an even worse-looking facility, located in McAllen, Texas, which show adults and children being separated in cages. Then ProPublica obtained audio of children wailing in agony as their parents were ripped away from them by border guards.
Nelson yesterday was far from the only Florida politician to condemn Donald Trump's inhumane child-separation policies, which were explicitly drafted by aide Stephen Miller to inflict psychological terror on migrant families to discourage them from crossing the border into the United States.
Unlike Nelson, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio initially defended the practice before somewhat backtracking.
The Homestead facility sits in the district of GOP Congressman Carlos Curbelo, who represents South Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys. A spokesperson in Curbelo's office did not respond to New Times' request for comment about the facility or the congressman's plans to do anything about it.