Activists, Lawmakers Aim to Shut Down Miami's Child-Migrant Camp

Activists, Lawmakers Aim to Shut Down Miami's Child-Migrant Camp
Photography by Monica McGivern
Photography by Monica McGivern
Earlier this year, the federal government announced it was closing a massive camp full of immigrant kids in Tornillo, Texas. Immigrant-rights activists say the camp was a humanitarian nightmare — most of the kids had been sent there after U.S. immigration officials ripped them from their parents in contravention of international law.

The federal government would never have closed the Tornillo camp without pressure from activists and lawmakers. And now that it's gone, the same people plan to focus full-time on the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Miami-Dade County.

"The effort of our coalition, the Close Tornillo Down coalition, was successful in working with many people and legislators," says Tom Cartwright, a member of the group. "We are now turning complete attention to Homestead... the only remaining nonregulated, large-scale, refugee child prison in the country. We’re going to bring the same forces together — in terms of political, legislative, activist, and faith-based organizations — to completely close down Homestead detention camp."

The Miami Herald first reported the activists' plans on Friday after reporter Monique Madan toured the Homestead facility.

New Times was the first outlet to report that the Trump administration had quietly reopened the building and placed as many as 1,300 kids there. Now, Tornillo is closing — and the federal government reportedly plans to add 1,000 more children to Miami's detention center. While there are more than 100 smaller facilities that currently hold unaccompanied kids, Miami's encampment is now the largest federal facility of its kind in the nation.

As such, it's now attracting major scrutiny. And for good reason: For one, the facility is not licensed and is therefore not subject to state-level or other forms of basic oversight. Moreover, civil rights activists allege that the Trump administration is using the kids inside as "bait" to lure adult immigrant sponsors the government can then catch and deport. New Times also reported last year that Immigration and Customs Enforcement often takes kids in the detention center who turn 18 to an adult ICE jail in Broward County. Legal advocates say that practice violates federal law.

Now, the activists who helped shut down Tornillo say they're pushing lawmakers to take action against Homestead. There are multiple federal bills in the works that would either close the facility or heavily regulate it. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and California Rep. Judy Chu, for example, recently refiled the "Shut Down Child Prisons" Act, which would close the Homestead camp and ensure the children inside — who are constantly followed by guards, not allowed visitors, and tagged with tracking bracelets — are placed with sponsors.

Furthermore, a team of Democratic senators — Kamala Harris, Ron Wyden, Bernie Sanders, Dianne Feinstein, Richard Blumenthal, and Kirsten Gillibrand — are working on a bill titled the "Families, Not Facilites" act that would prohibit the Department of Health and Human Services from sharing sponsor and child information with ICE — thus preventing the agency from using kids to catch adult sponsors. The bill would also create a "committee" to oversee child shelters and use ICE-budget money for legal, medical, and mental health services for child refugees.

New Times also reported last month that the Homestead camp is a lucrative enterprise for the facility's main contractor: a Cape Canaveral-based company called Comprehensive Health Services. Last year, a private-equity firm named D.C. Capital Partners bought Comprehensive Health and folded it into a new corporation called "Caliburn International." D.C. Capital Partners now wants to take Caliburn public and sell $100 million in Class A stock on Wall Street.

Importantly, D.C. Capital Partners used to employ White House chief of staff John Kelly, who was getting paid by a D.C. Capital subsidiary while he worked in the Trump administration. He only quit after the Intercept reported on his side job. Kelly had conveniently failed to disclose that income on government forms.

Activists say it's unconscionable that a private firm — especially one so closely tied to the White House — now wants to reap a stock-market windfall on the backs of imprisoned children.

"A significant concern is that Homestead is operated by a for-profit company closely tied to the defense department and owned by a private equity firm," Cartwright said. "Their motivation will clearly be to maximize their profits by filling every bed with kids and having kids stay the maximum time in captivity."
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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.