Inside Homestead: A tour of the Florida camp for migrant children

The shelter has become a site of ‘resistance’ in recent months — a magnet for protesters and politicians alike

Boys exercise at the Homestead facility on July 9. (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)
Boys exercise at the Homestead facility on July 9. (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 25, 2019 at 5:30am

EDITOR’S NOTE: Staff writer Tanvi Misra and visual journalist Jinitzail Hernández visited the privately run shelter for migrant children held by the U.S. government in Homestead, Florida, on July 8-9. Hernández was not given permission to shoot video or photos inside the facility, and she and Misra were escorted at all times by Caliburn International staff. This is their report.


HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The tops of the white tents gleamed in the Florida sun. Stern signs announced that we were approaching U.S. government property: No photos or video allowed. Beyond the fence sprawled a 55-acre complex of tents, trailers, and stout sandy-colored buildings, which had grown in recent months like an unwieldy appendage to the Homestead Air Reserve Base next door.

On July 8, we visited this site, a 30-minute drive south of Miami: a “temporary influx facility” that held 2,000 migrant teens at the time, some of whom had been separated from their families at the border.

[Catholic nuns, priests protesting migrant child treatment arrested on Capitol Hill]

After unaccompanied or separated migrant children leave facilities run by the Border Patrol, where they are initially held, they are housed in shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Homestead is one of those.

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Homestead, which very briefly operated during the Obama presidency, is currently the Trump administration’s largest shelter — and its most controversial. It has become a site of “resistance” in recent months — a magnet for protesters and politicians alike, who are railing against a broad swath of Trump administration immigration policies.The administration argues that the facility is exempt from state licensing requirements and other oversight measures that smaller, permanent shelters are subject to because it stands on federal land, and because it is being deployed for emergency purposes. The facility is currently run by a subsidiary of Caliburn International — a private, for-profit company providing logistics, medical, and defense services. Former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly joined the board of Caliburn International, news reports confirmed in May. In 2017, Kelly had expressed support for family separation “in order to deter” migrants from coming to the U.S.

That’s why protesters from the Miami area and beyond trickle in outside the facility through the day to “witness” what they view as a moral catastrophe unfolding in their backyards.

When we visited, a small group gathered there showed us their “base camp” with protest signs, folding chairs, drinking water and snacks. They told us they document everything — creating a crowd-sourced daily archive of the facility’s ins and outs. From time to time, they climb stepladders they have placed by the fence and wave to the children in orange hats they see inside the camp.

Sometimes, the kids wave back.

Bunk beds, doorless bathrooms

Inside the “multipurpose” tent, a gaggle of 13- to 16-year-old girls clustered in groups, singing as lyrics of a Spanish song were projected on a screen. Sky-blue plastic rosaries, along with badges with bar codes, dangled from many of their necks. Some looked very young.

In July, at the time of our visit, around 22 kids living at Homestead had been separated from family. The others had apparently crossed the border alone.

Within the first 72 hours of their arrival, teens at Homestead are generally screened for medical conditions and provided a set of clothes and toiletries. Their valuables are taken from them and stored away.

Every day, they have classes roughly from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with breaks for leisure and legal services. While they are taught math, science and English, the lessons are not based on any standardized curriculum, and most of their teachers are not accredited. They are not allowed to take pens and pencils outside the class, lest they harm themselves or others.

In some spots on our tour, we saw posters in English and Spanish with information on reporting sexual abuse, and a notice that said the government and the operator of the shelter could not deny, or obstruct, anyone who sought abortions, per court orders.

At Homestead, like previous influx shelters, the children aren’t permitted to touch anyone. To report sexual assault or any kind of “inappropriate touch,” whether by a child or staff member, the teens can use phones with direct lines to the Florida Department of Child and Family Services (DCF), the state agency that investigates sexual assault cases. The phone booths are in hallways, rec rooms and medical units across the facility, but aren’t very private. DCF doesn’t have jurisdiction over the facility because it’s on federal land, so all reported incidents go through a circuitous process, and end up in the hands of the Federal Protective Services — a federal law enforcement group whose job it is to protect federal property.

Joseph Cuciti, the area commander of FPS agents stationed at Homestead, says that because sexual assault complaints are not their “specialty,” they call in local or federal law enforcement about any reported incidents they see as criminal. The complaints may span a wide range of behaviors, and it is not clear whether any of them have been investigated. Cuciti says no such complaint has been substantiated. Currently, no such complaint has been substantiated, he says. (DCF, however, confirmed to CQ Roll Call it has received at least seven calls reporting sexual assault from the facility, which it forwarded to the feds.)

When we visited, there was one youth care worker per eight children; and one clinician — who can offer counseling — overseeing 12 children. These workers go through background checks, but not the specialized checks required of workers in state-licensed child care facilities. In many cases at Homestead, the social workers and clinicians who oversee a child’s release to sponsor families are often working remotely from El Paso and San Antonio. Many of the locals protesting outside know someone who works inside. Some of these workers may be better equipped, and more willing, to care for the children than, say, government agents, says Stacy Oelerking, a protester who had been camped outside Homestead for a month at the time we visited. “But they’re also cogs in a terrible machine,” she adds.

In the weeks leading to a child’s 18th birthday, the operators notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which may take the youths, in restraints, to nearby adult detention centers. So far, sources at Caliburn say around 115 youth have been transferred to ICE this way. (ICE did not confirm this number.)

Tall fences surround the northern “campus,” where the 17-year-olds live. The living quarters — which are separate for girls and boys — are in what appear to be an airplane hangar-like space, with around 150 bunk beds arranged in rows. A loud air vent spans the ceiling. An adjoining tent provides parallel rows of toilets and showers. It feels drafty even in the middle of the day.

Children younger than 17 are housed in the south “campus.” Here, they are also separated by gender on floors labeled in militaristic parlance: “Bravo” for boys and “Golf” for girls. Each room sleeps 12 on bunk beds. The sinks in these rooms abut a doorless bathroom, and as with the 17-year-olds, a member of the facility staff sits outside while the kids take five minutes to shower.

In the one room we entered, a boy had taped above his bed a drawing of a rose, bedazzled with pasted sequins, with biblical affirmations in Spanish. It was Psalm 91, which translated reads:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High,Will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress.My god, in whom I trust.”

Story Photo
Teens held at Homestead do midday calisthenics. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call)

‘The clog in the pipeline’

In recent days, government watchdog and news reports have illuminated the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions at Customs and Border Protection centers. Conditions at Homestead are better, some argue.

A pastor named Russell Black who volunteers at the facility recently told Fox News that the operators and staff try to make the children’s stay there as “painless and pleasant as possible.”

But comparing conditions to Border Patrol facilities is a low bar, critics say, and unlike Border Patrol, it is HHS’ job to care for children — a job the agency is not doing well, they say. Instead, critics say, it is shrugging off the responsibility to a private company that profits from the “warehousing” of migrant children.

In June, a team of lawyers authorized by the Flores agreement, a 1997 court settlement that establishes how migrant children should be treated, filed a complaint against Homestead. In it, they argued that children were held at the facility for prolonged periods of time in conditions that violated the standards set by the settlement.

Ryan Matlow, a licensed psychologist at Stanford University’s medical school who visited the facility in March, was quoted in the complaint saying conditions were “consistent with those that create trauma, and that commonly result in post-traumatic stress and long-lasting functional impairment.”

The court documents include interviews conducted in private with children at Homestead. Teens complained about being separated from siblings at the facility; about not being able to communicate in indigenous languages; about the emotional impact of the facility’s strict no-touch rule; and the effect of being constantly surveilled.

Some children spoke of doing harm to themselves. Others expressed fear that if they broke any rules, it would have a bearing on whether they’re reunited with family and whether they’re able to stay in the United States.

“I cannot give anyone a hug,” one young person told the attorneys. “I want to be comforted, but there’s no way for that to happen here.”

Denise Bell, a researcher at Amnesty International, has visited the facility several times, and outlined some of her team’s critiques in a new report published July 17. While conditions she viewed on her most recent visit to Homestead appeared to have improved since the first time she was there, she is still concerned.

“Warehousing means you can’t provide care that’s centered on the best interests of the children,” she tells CQ Roll Call. “This is no home for children.”

The biggest issue, according to these critics, is that the children at Homestead were not being processed out in a timely manner and placed in a “non-restrictive” setting “expeditiously,” as the Flores settlement requires. A court recently interpreted that to mean that children must generally be placed with families within 20 days of arrival.

In January, Flores co-counsel reported that 140 children had spent 100 days or more at Homestead, and 26 children had spent 200 days or more there — more than six months.

On July 8, the official line was that the longest a child has been at Homestead is 126 days — and that the stay varied by the type of family a child has in the United States. Children with parents or close family could be reunited in less than 30 days. However, we encountered a 16-year-old during our visit who had been at the facility for 63 days, even though his mother was in Maryland.

“A temporary influx facility should be just that — temporary,” says Amnesty’s Bell. “[Homestead] is operating as a permanent shelter without any of the requirements of a permanent shelter.”

According to Hope Frye, executive director of Project Lifeline, an attorney with the Flores team, the key reason for the holdup is the financial incentive to keep children inside.

For Frye, the blame lies partly with HHS, which does not have a nationwide program to train caseworkers. It’s also striking, she says, that a place like Homestead, which is reportedly getting $750 a day per child in taxpayer money, cannot hire a sufficient number of caseworkers to process the children out as quickly as possible, or to transfer them to smaller, permanent, licensed shelters. On July 8, 161 caseworkers were working at Homestead on site to unite children with family members in the U.S.

“Cruelty begins with CBP, but [HHS] is the clog in the pipeline,” she says. “It’s economic for the American taxpayer to having a big, robust, well-done, well-trained, well-supervised case manager system . . . that says, ‘We’re not in the detention business, we’re in the release business.’ ”

Caliburn says it does its best to take care of children at Homestead and process them out swiftly: “The physical and emotional well-being of each child is the Homestead shelter’s top priority,” the company said in a statement. “We all share a common goal — caring for these children and finding them a safe home.”

Bureaucratic issues

Government policy changes have also contributed to delays in releasing children.

In 2018, the administration tightened vetting procedures for families and friends who volunteered to take in unaccompanied and separated minors, adding to processing bottlenecks, although these changes were later walked back to some extent.

Along with the ongoing practice of separating children from families, the beefed-up vetting policy caused the population of minors in government custody to balloon.

Last year, HHS also began sharing information on sponsors with immigration enforcement authorities, leading to the deportation of 200 sponsors who came forward. While enacted 2019 appropriations somewhat limit such enforcement, the fear and confusion still keeps many potential sponsors from approaching authorities. HHS confirmed that the average length of stay at an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter, however, has decreased from 93 days in November 2018 to 45 days in May 2019 following these changes.

But even when they get out of these shelters, the future for unaccompanied children is unclear: the administration has recently changed rules that make it more difficult for kids labeled as “unaccompanied” to receive protections in the U.S.

For many protesters and critics, it’s this web of policies that created a Frankenstein-like multi-agency system that punishes migrant children.

“[The story] isn’t even in the details of the treatment inside [Homestead], as bad as it is,” says Joshua Rubin, a protester from Brooklyn, N.Y. “It is in the separation as punishment, and the profit for the same people who made the policy.”

Rubin spent months outside the influx facility in Tornillo, Texas, in 2018, and has now realigned the focus of his 12,000-strong Facebook group toward campaigning to shut down Homestead.

Since the start of 2018, Caliburn’s subsidiary, Comprehensive Health Services, received three contracts for operating Homestead, totaling $545 million. The last one ends in November. The company has also received four additional contracts for smaller shelters for migrant children in Texas.

Late last year, Caliburn wanted to sell $100 million worth of stock on Wall Street, and mentioned that HHS’s increased need to house migrant children “is projected to drive growth.” After media scrutiny, it later withdrew the stock offering.

In a statement, Caliburn said it was “proud of the innovations” it was bringing to “sheltering the children and reducing their length of stay.”

“We entered this line of business with [HHS] since we are a medical management company; we take care of everybody — United States Department of State personnel in austere and challenging locations or children under the care of ORR.”

Protesters wave heart-shaped signs at children in the camp. (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)
Protesters wave heart-shaped signs at children in the camp. (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)

Pressure from Democrats

Over the past month, Homestead has seen a lot of high-profile foot traffic and its share of press.

The facility became a flashpoint for Democrats as negotiations over a supplemental appropriations bill for the border emergency went into full swing. Before the July 4 recess, House Democrats lost the battle to get their own bill through and signed on to the Senate version, which had fewer protections for children in government custody. The intensity of their push to highlight issues at Homestead and other facilities has only strengthened since that defeat.

On the Senate side, the border supplemental bill passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. The one “no” came from Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, who was hoping for better regulation of temporary influx shelters like Homestead.

In January, Merkley and California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu introduced legislation calling for the shutdown of such facilities. In July, Merkley introduced another bill seeking to improve the treatment of migrant children in detention.

“We should never have a for-profit in this business,” he says, regarding Homestead. “There has to be determination to put kids into the best places possible.”

The loudest opposition in the House comes, unsurprisingly, from Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat whose district includes the Homestead facility. In her view, it is a “scar” on her community.

Homestead, the town, “is up-and-coming, it’s getting investments, and it’s culturally diverse; that’s what I want to highlight,” she says. “We shouldn’t be known for keeping kids imprisoned.”

Mucarsel-Powell, a member of the House Judiciary Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, has made several visits to the facility — and been denied entry on occasion. In July, she sent 51 questions to HHS about the conditions at the facility, including requests to view the agency’s hurricane and natural disaster evacuation plan. She threatened legal action if HHS did not respond “fully and promptly.”

Following her lead, a handful of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — recently visited. Other members of the House Appropriations Committee have followed, and hope to host hearings on conditions in HHS facilities.

On June 6, Warren and Washington Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal also wrote the CEO of Caliburn International asking for clarification on its relationship to John Kelly. “It is outrageous that he now appears to be cashing in on those same policies as a board member for the company that benefited from his actions as a government official,” they wrote, noting the disclosure that he would be making $100,000 annually for his services.

GOP pushback

Republicans have been accusing their opponents of political theater — and arguing that they saw a crisis long before the Democrats, and called it out again and again.

Democrats “claimed that President Trump and conservatives had ‘manufactured’ the crisis for political gain. Their statements were lies,” wrote Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican and member of the Freedom Caucus, in a recent op-ed in The Hill. “While they pandered to their base and defamed the president and his allies, the problem continued to grow until it became a full-fledged emergency.”

At the end of February 2018, when the Homestead facility was opened, unaccompanied minors encountered by Border Patrol reached 3,759 — about half the number during the same month this year — 7,243 —when migration to the Southern border rose dramatically.

By mid-2019, it indeed turned into full-fledged crisis — CBP’s May numbers showed that unaccompanied children at the border were arriving in numbers even higher than in 2014, when the Obama administration declared it a “crisis.”

These numbers do not include the children separated from families in 2018 through then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy and labeled “unaccompanied.” Many children are still being separated from adult family members, in cases in which relationships cannot be proved or if the adults have committed even minor criminal offenses in the past.

Democrats and Republicans differ on what the current crisis entails, who it is a problem for, and how it should be dealt with. Advocates, however, are skeptical of the administration’s position.

“There was no reason to open such a facility [in 2018] except for poor planning on the part of the administration,” says Bell of Amnesty International. “But there are now higher arrivals of children, so it’s a different situation: now, a problem that predated the higher arrivals has compounded.”

Although June saw a big dip in migration at the southwest border, the administration is opening more “temporary influx facilities” — one at Fort Sill, a U.S. Army base in Oklahoma used as a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II; another in Carrizo Springs, Texas.

As of July 15, the number of children at Homestead had declined to 1,100, with sources at Caliburn explaining they were pausing on new referrals with the approach of hurricane season. “HHS is working diligently in collaboration with our network of shelters, including Homestead, to unify unaccompanied alien children with parents, close family relatives or other sponsors as safely and quickly as possible, HHS said in a statement. “No additional unaccompanied alien children are being placed at Homestead.”

But advocates fear the model the facility is based on is proliferating.

“We are concerned that Homestead will become the new face of detaining unaccompanied children, instead of using small sized, licensed permanent shelter networks,” Bell says. “We’re not calling for the shuttering of the [HHS] shelter system, just that it should be brought in line” with accepted practices and standards.

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This story originally appeared in CQ Magazine on July 22. A condensed version appeared in the print edition of Roll Call on July 25.