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Activists with the group Witness: Tornillo. Target: Homestead protest outside the Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children.EXPAND
Activists with the group Witness: Tornillo. Target: Homestead protest outside the Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children.
Photo by Carrie Feit

Worker at Homestead Migrant Shelter Says Children's "Mini Prison" Should Be Closed

Update, October 9: Gregory Solano, the youth care worker interviewed for this story, tells New Times he was fired from his job at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children this morning.

For the past nine weeks, about 2,000 workers at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children have reported to their jobs at the facility for migrant kids — despite the fact that all children were transferred out of the camp in early August.

In the meantime, employees still being paid to work there have been exercising, playing board games, and competing in kickball matches to pass the time. The Miami Herald reported last month that taxpayers have shelled out $720,000 per day to keep the facility open; Jonathan Hayes, director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, has quoted a figure closer to $600,000.

Although the arrangement is essentially easy money for the employees who remain, not all of them are happy about it.

Gregory Solano, a youth-care worker who was hired at the facility last year, tells New Times his job has become pointless.

"I think that shelter should be closed," Solano says.

Until the children were transferred, Solano says, he enjoyed his job, though he had reservations about working in a detention center for children. On night shifts, he made sure the kids stayed safely in their bunks; during the day, he led them in groups to classes, meals, and playtime. One of his most important roles, he says, was keeping an eye out for "high-risk" children, including those who had suicidal ideations.

With no kids to care for, Solano says, reporting to work feels futile.

"Sitting around playing card games — that's not what I'm there for," he says.

According to Solano, word around the shelter is that children might return later this month, which is consistent with what federal sources have told the Herald. But those reports are disputed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

"Contrary to more inaccurate reporting by the Miami Herald, HHS has no current plans to resume operations at the Homestead temporary emergency influx facility," spokesman Mark Weber wrote in an email to New Times.

Tetiana Anderson, a spokeswoman for Caliburn International — the Reston, Virginia-based private corporation that operates the facility — referred all questions back to HHS.

Solano, who requested that New Times publish his full name in this story, says he has been looking for a new job to no avail. Increasingly, he says, he has had "mixed feelings" about working at what he describes as a "mini prison."

"When it comes to the children, they're like prisoners," Solano says. "It makes me feel a little — somewhat uncomfortable."

In his experience, the children at the facility were treated well. But he acknowledges that for many of them, being detained was traumatic.

"These kids, they're stressed out. They don't like it there. They really want to get out and meet their families. They get depressed," he says. "If I was in their shoes, I'd feel the same. If I came in this country by myself with nobody — no mother, no father — then I'd be depressed. I'd feel down."

Weber, the HHS spokesman, says the Homestead facility remains open in the event of a sudden influx. The department says fall has historically been a busy time of year when it comes to unaccompanied children arriving in the United States.

"Our job is to be prepared," he wrote. "Having Homestead... available when and if there is a need is a result of our aggressive bed management strategy that allows us to expand and contract capacity as needed."

Weber's full statement is posted below:

Once again the media is providing the public with inaccurate information about HHS programs for unaccompanied migrant children. Contrary to more inaccurate reporting by the Miami Herald, HHS has no current plans to resume operations at the Homestead temporary emergency influx facility.

Migration patterns are unpredictable. ORR operates a network of approximately 170 facilities/programs in 23 states that are working to unify migrant child with their parent, family member or other suitable sponsor. During an influx, ORR may not have sufficient bed space available within its licensed care provider network to place unaccompanied alien children. In this situation, ORR utilizes Emergency Influx Care Facilities to ensure children are moved out of Border Patrol facilities as expeditiously and safely as possible.

As we've previously stated, historically during the fall months we can see an increase in referrals. Our job is to be prepared. Having Homestead and Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facilities available when and if there is a need is a result of our aggressive bed management strategy that allows us to expand and contract capacity as needed. It always remains our preference to place minors in our permanent network of state-licensed beds and we are working on strategies to minimize the use of Emergency Influx Care Facilities in the future.

The important work happening in each of the facilities and programs in the ORR network around the country — work ORR has done successfully since 2003 — takes an experienced team of competent, hardworking men and women dedicated to the welfare of the children. We treat the children in our care with dignity and respect, and deliver services to them in a compassionate and organized manner while we work expeditiously to unify each one with a suitable sponsor.

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