Homestead Camp Holds Too Many Kids to Safely Accommodate in a Hurricane

The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children
The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children Courtesy of Carrie Feit
The nation's largest facility for unaccompanied immigrant children is holding more kids than it can safely accommodate during a low-category hurricane. That's what Homestead officials told a delegation from Amnesty International during a tour of the facility earlier today.

More than 1,700 kids are being held at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. But facility officials believe they can safely house house only 1,200 in the event of a tropical storm or low-level hurricane, according to Amnesty International USA executive director Margaret Huang. In the event of a high-category storm, officials told Huang, the detention center would have to be evacuated.

Officials did not offer details about how they came up with the 1,200 limit, nor did they provide Huang with additional information regarding hurricane preparations or evacuation procedures.

According to figures given to the Amnesty International delegation, as many as 2,200 children were being housed in the detention center last week. Recent reports indicate the facility has had far more than 1,200 children in its care since hurricane season began June 1. 

"I was extremely troubled by their response," Huang says. "We continue to have significant concerns about the facility." Amnesty International plans to follow up on the shelter's hurricane plans in the next week.

A representative for Caliburn International — the private contractor that operates the compound — declined to comment on the record for this report

Huang, along with two colleagues from Amnesty International, began a tour of the facility at 11 this morning. The walk-through lasted more than two hours and was led by senior management from Comprehensive Health Services (CHS), a subsidiary of Caliburn International. A representative from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is tasked with the care of migrant children in government custody, was also present, according to Huang.

"It's so saddening to visit a facility like this," Huang says. "They're not thinking of the individual needs of these kids. It doesn’t matter who's running the facility — places like this just shouldn't exist. Children shouldn't be kept here."

Huang says officials leading the tour admitted that other permanent shelters would likely be a better option for migrant children but made clear they had no intention of closing the Homestead camp.

A New Times reporter toured the facility in February — makeshift white tents compose vast portions of the compound, including areas used for recreation, education, dining, and showering. For the most part, children sleep in brick-and-mortar buildings erected when the compound was a Job Corps vocational training school. The tents do not appear as if they can withstand hurricane-force winds.

For that reason, reporters, immigrant activists, and lawmakers have been trying to get their hands on the federal government's hurricane-evacuation plan for months. On May 31, the Miami Herald reported that the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement had not yet devised a hurricane-evacuation plan for the site despite the fact that hurricane season began June 1 and the facility at that point housed nearly 3,000 kids.

In June, Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who represents Homestead, told the Herald that she still had not seen the government’s hurricane-preparedness plans. In response to questions from her office, the feds stressed they had a hurricane plan but said Mucarsel-Powell, for some reason, was not allowed to see it.  A staffer in Mucarsel-Powell's office told New Times today that the lawmaker has still not been provided any formal details about the facility's hurricane plan.

The detention center's population has ballooned rapidly since President Donald Trump took office. President Barack Obama’s administration opened the facility in 2016 as a "spillover site" that housed as many as 800 children during a surge in child border crossings that year. But the Obama administration later closed the compound. New Times first reported last year that Trump had quietly reopened the facility in 2018 and placed more than 1,000 kids there with little public disclosure.

Since then, the Trump administration has continually funneled larger numbers of kids to the compound. In December 2018, the Associated Press reported the facility would be expanded to hold as many as 2,300 kids. In April 2019, the feds announced they were again upping the detention center's capacity, to 3,200 children.

Roughly 14,300 children have passed through Homestead since last March. More than 110 of them were arrested by ICE after reaching their 18th birthdays before a sponsor could be found for them.

"It's a traumatic event for them. ICE actually handcuffs them as they take them away to another facility," Huang says. Officials told her they have a special "aging out" team that works to find new homes for children before they turn 18 and ICE comes knocking.

Now it appears the federal government — which has constantly stressed the facility is "temporary" — is decreasing the population. Officials told Huang they were aiming to eventually lower the number of children to 1,200.

Politically speaking, the move comes at a contentious time for the White House. The camp is increasingly becoming a site for large-scale protests against Trump's immigration policies. In June, Democratic presidential candidates made multiple pilgrimages to the entrance of the facility, and some, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, demanded the facility be closed. There have been virtually constant demonstrations at the camp for months — hundreds of activists say they will participate in a candlelit vigil outside the facility at 7 p.m. today.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within HHS’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has developed extensive extreme weather plans for Homestead. These plans are continually re-evaluated and updated as needed.

An HHS spokesperson did not provide detail on the 1,200 child limit at Homestead, nor did they offer additional information on efforts by facility officials to lower the number of children in their custody.

HHS issued a statement in response to this report: "All shelters in our unaccompanied alien children (UAC) network are required to have an evacuation plan in place. Processes have been established to ensure operational effectiveness. Additionally, grantees/ contractors must develop annual staff trainings on emergency and disaster preparedness as required in cooperative agreements with ORR. HHS continually monitors weather and other emergency conditions and stands ready should evacuation planning become necessary."

This is a breaking story. This post will be updated.
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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.
Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.