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.'"
After fleeing Guatemala, the teen said it took a month to travel through Mexico. She arrived at the U.S. border in late 2016 and asked Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents for asylum. But the teen's lawyer, Stephen Coger, says CBP agents repeatedly tried to prevent the girl from successfully applying for asylum, which is a form of legal immigration.
"CBP spent a large part of their interview saying to her: 'We know you’re lying. You're not really afraid to go back,' etc.," Coger says. "That's in contravention of both American law and international law."
She says the initial shelters where she was held before Homestead were far worse. In one facility, she says, she was fed only two ham sandwiches per day and nothing else. She says she was forced to sleep under the plastic "emergency blankets" seen in many of the disturbing photographs of caged immigrants around the country. She also said guards treated the children coldly and often refused to speak to them directly. She described spending a night in la hielera — the immigration-detention facilities near the border kept so cold that immigrants refer to them in Spanish as "iceboxes."
"They looked like cages or jail cells," the woman says of one facility in Texas. "We slept on mattresses. It was very cold. They gave us blankets, but they were aluminum blankets. They gave us two ham sandwiches a day: one in the morning and one in the evening. They didn't mistreat me, but they wouldn't talk. Sometimes we wanted to ask what was going to happen, but they wouldn't say anything. They just served us food."
She says that conditions actually improved when she made it to Homestead but that she faced different challenges there. Even though she had family members willing to take her in, the teen spent three full months in the Homestead facility during the spring of 2017. The facility closed that August after what the government said was a drop in border apprehensions — but was quietly reopened this past March and had been housing nearly 1,200 children virtually in secret until last week.
Because she was close to turning 18, her attorney says, immigration officials repeatedly threatened to hold her until her birthday so they could send her to an adult detention center instead of releasing her to her relatives.
"The social worker there called her future guardians and threatened them, saying he was not going to release her 'until she turns 18 and you can’t help her,'" Coger says. Had the family not had an immigration lawyer and sent repeated letters to the social worker and his supervisors, the teen could have been sent to an adult detention facility while waiting for her day in immigration court.
"But I don't like the term 'detention center,'" Coger says. "'Detention' is what you get when you act out at school. These are like prisons."
As negotiations continued, the family was forced to send a seemingly never-ending series of documents to the facility — and at one point, a social worker directly threatened the family, they say.
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"He would call us randomly," the teen's guardian says. "He called us late one night when we were just about to go to bed... He sounded like he was drunk, he said he wanted to talk to my wife. There was some confusion, he took offense, and then said, 'If I don’t get the right answers, I’m going to send her to Texas.' At that point, I was about to go off on him. I was like, 'Here, honey, please pick up the phone and talk to this guy, because I might say something that would provoke him.' She talked to him and got him to calm down."
The family says they sometimes questioned whether the teen would ever be released. But thanks to the efforts of Coger, she was finally released near the end of this spring. She's now awaiting a court date and hoping to obtain temporary legal status while she seeks asylum.
"It seemed like they were never going to let her go," a guardian says. "It wasn’t easy. I can’t imagine other people that aren’t maybe as adept at talking on the phone with bureaucracies and doing paperwork. We had to do this runaround. It seems designed to wear you down."
Celia Almeida contributed to this story.