“Sometimes it’s really hard having to stay here,” said a teenage girl from Guatemala who’d been detained for five months. “A couple of girls since I’ve been here have been cutting themselves. … I have spent a lot of time crying and the other girls too.”
Her testimony is among hundreds of pages filed Friday in support of a motion to enforce the Flores settlement — a landmark 1997 agreement that sets standards for the detention, treatment, and release of migrant children — at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. The motion, filed by attorneys who oversee the settlement, alleges widespread hazards at the facility, adding that children uniformly told legal advocates they disliked living there. Doctors who toured the shelter said prolonged detention is causing "unnecessary and potentially long-lasting harm."
Filed today in California federal court, the motion argues that the Office of Refugee Resettlement "has adopted policies and practices in violation of the settlement." The government is failing to expeditiously transfer minors from the unlicensed, "military-style" Homestead center to licensed facilities, it says. The attorneys are seeking an order to release or transfer the children within 20 days of placement at the shelter, as required under Flores.
"Defendants' use of Homestead reveals the Government's intentional disregard of the binding provisions of the Settlement which do not permit unaccompanied minors to be detained in unlicensed facilities merely because they are on Federal properties," reads the motion, filed by Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.
The Homestead shelter opened quietly in February 2018. Its existence was not widely known until June of 2018, when New Times broke the news that it was housing about 1,000 migrant children. Over the last year, the facility has expanded not just once, but twice. It will soon have the capacity to hold 3,200 children. While the federal government oversees the compound, the facility is run by a private contractor — Caliburn International, which employs President Donald Trump's former Homeland Security chief, John Kelly. The company did not immediately respond to New Times' request for comment.
The documents state that 10,125 kids ages 11 to 17 passed through the shelter between January 2018 and April 2019. Of that number, 55 percent came from Guatemala, while 27.4 percent arrived from Honduras, 14 percent came from El Salvador, and 1.1 percent arrived from Mexico. Documents state that, since May 2018, more than half the kids inside the facility had been there for more than 20 days, some for as long as five months.
The state of Florida doesn't license the facility, so it is not regulated by child welfare authorities. The Office of Refugee Resettlement argues that because the center is classified as temporary, it does not need to be licensed and there is no maximum length of time children can be held there. It is also a secure facility, in violation of the settlement. Children described being monitored constantly and accompanied to the bathroom. They said they feared being deported or sent to jail if they tried to escape. They are afraid to even voice their desire to leave.
"I can't leave this facility," a 16-year-old boy said in a declaration included with the motion. "People who try to escape are always caught, and my friends tell me that if you are caught, you get sent to another place ... There are gates and walls that surround this place ... You have to get permission from the [youth counselors] to use the bathroom."
Lawyers for the Flores settlement filed statements from attorneys and doctors who visited the site, as well as 75 children who were placed at the facility. The scathing document, first reported by Reveal, includes some harrowing details. For instance, lawyers said the children consistently complained about noise from fans in the largest dormitory rooms, including one that appears to be a former airplane hangar. Children in the hangar sleeping closest to the fans are given extra blankets — not just for warmth, but also to place over their heads to drown out the noise as they sleep.
The lawyers said the facility’s program coordinator, Bernadine Leslie Wood, said the kids enjoyed living in the airplane hangar and that the children felt like it was “a slumber party.” She also said the kids could request earplugs, but that none of the children had actually asked for them.
“Children we interviewed universally disagreed with Wood and denied being offered earplugs,” the lawyers wrote. They added that the “layout of this immense communal sleeping area and secluded location of the bathroom make it difficult, if not impossible, for Homestead staff to ensure children’s safety.” There are also no security cameras in the sleeping areas.
Inspectors also said the bathrooms at the facility were disgusting — carpets smelled strongly of mildew, advocates said. The “unsanitary condition of the bathroom area and the deafening noise of the fan are clear health hazards,” the document states.
Children are allowed only two ten-minute phone calls a week, during which they are typically accompanied by a social worker. They described wishing they could speak with their families privately and for longer lengths of time. Requests for extra time are sometimes denied, even under extenuating circumstances such as the death of a family member.
"I can't even access the phone to talk to my mom on my birthday," one child told attorneys. "Nobody has sung happy birthday to me today."
Legal advocates warned that every child they interviewed stated that the rules, which include five-minute showers, walking in lines, finishing food and avoiding any touching at all, were strictly enforced and that the kids constantly fear that breaking rules will mean they'll be trapped in the facility even longer. Some worry they or their families might be deported.
Today in federal court, lawyers filed dozens of statements from children detained at the unlicensed mega-shelter in Homestead, Florida.@lauracmorel and I will share a few highlights as we read them. https://t.co/cDiJ23mSCH— Patrick Michels (@PatrickMichels) May 31, 2019
"Children are frequently threatened both directly and indirectly that they and/or their family members' immigration cases would be negatively impacted (including deportation) if they violate facility rules," attorneys wrote. "Since the expressed policies, rules, and protections for children in these facilities were inconsistently enforced, a child would have little if any certainty what might be considered an infraction at any given moment."
The lawyers' allegations of mistreatment are far from the first involving the facility. New Times reported last year that children who turn 18 while at the facility are handcuffed on their birthdays and transported to adult Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. But the new filings add that if ICE cannot pick up a detainee in time, the young adults are kept in solitary confinement in a windowless room that contains no bathroom.
In other cases, facility operators claimed they transferred all kids with special needs to smaller, licensed shelters where they could be better cared for. However, the lawyers said the operators didn’t actually explain what “special needs” meant, and that they observed numerous children inside the facility who needed additional care. Some children only spoke indigenous languages and could not communicate with staff. Another child who only spoke an indigenous Mayan language called Acateco, was legally blind. Caseworkers said he could not be released until a $5,000 pair of special eyeglasses arrived at the compound, but workers admitted they had no idea when that might be. The child reported to Homestead staff that other kids had been beating him up.
At Homestead, kids said they're not allowed to have physical contact even alone with family members. "There are cameras here watching us." pic.twitter.com/0Mrdugi59V— Patrick Michels (@PatrickMichels) May 31, 2019
Wood told the inspectors that visitors were allowed, but kids told their lawyers they weren’t aware this was the case. About 17 percent of the children only communicate with caseworkers via Skype.
“Children had not been given a list of lawyers nor advised of their Flores [rights],” the documents state. “Although children expressed a desire for legal representation, none had a lawyer nor did they know how to contact one.”
The lawyers spoke to scores of children who said they simply had no idea what would happen to them or how they would get out of the facility. In most cases, the kids said they had willing sponsors waiting for them elsewhere in the United States; one child even had a willing sponsor in Miami. Children said they were left in the dark about their cases for weeks or months at a time. One kid said that case-workers did not even begin processing his case until he’d been living inside the facility for 90 days. Another 13-year-old boy from Guatemala said he’d been at the compound for more than 140 days. Another child said that, after 40 days, he was told he would be sent to live with his father in Texas. Instead, he was kept at Homestead for another 93 days.
Another 16-year-old child from Guatemala stated that he arrived at the border in Texas with his father, but that he’d been separated from his dad, flown to Homestead, and kept there for 138 days. “Nobody here has explained to me why I have not been released,” the teen told legal advocates.
Children described feeling sad and hopeless because of the lengthy detentions, facility conditions and lack of certainty over when they would be released. Several said they heard others crying themselves to sleep. A 16-year-old girl said some of the other girls had been cutting themselves.
"I cannot give anyone a hug," one child said. "I need to be comforted, but there is no way for that to happen here."
Doctors said the conditions children endure at the center, including the lack of autonomy, access to family supports and limited knowledge of their circumstances, can create lasting trauma and post-traumatic stress. Dr. Marsha R. Griffin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, wrote in a statement filed with the motion that the government is causing "irrevocable mental and physical harm" to every detained child.
"We are further damaging children already traumatized by events at home and during their perilous journey here," she wrote. "We are not providing safe haven. Instead, we are participating in child abuse and neglect."