Senate Democrats Vow to Fight Reopening of For-Profit ‘Child Prison’ Homestead

The nation’s largest detention center built to house unaccompanied immigrant children officially shut its doors earlier this month—but not for long. 

In a report last week, the Trump administration indicated it is planning to reopen the center as soon as six weeks from now, leading immigrant rights advocates and members of Congress to call for the permanent closure of the notorious facility, which they have dubbed a “child prison.”

“What we’re doing to these kids is evil and cruel,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said in a statement accompanying a letter calling for the closure of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. “If they thought we wouldn’t notice, if they thought we were done fighting their cruelty, they were sorely mistaken.”

The Homestead facility, a 3,200-bed detention center in the Miami suburbs, is the sole for-profit child detention center in the United States, and at its peak brought in an estimated $500,000 in taxpayer dollars per day for Comprehensive Health Services, a subsidiary of private prison operator Caliburn International.

On Aug. 3, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) announced that the “temporary influx facility,” which operated without a license and is not regulated by state child welfare authorities, had been shuttered. But, DHS noted, it reserved the right to retain a certain number of beds at Homestead “for future access in the event of increased referrals or an emergency situation.”

That’s not good enough for civil rights advocates and Democratic members of Congress, who say that recent reports in the Miami Herald that Homestead could reopen as soon as October are deeply troubling.

“Homestead is not closed. There will be kids back at the center, it’s just a matter of when,” the Herald quoted one federal official overseeing the operation, who said that the biggest question of Homestead’s reopening revolves not around concerns about conditions in the facility, but about whether to delay reopening until after the Atlantic hurricane season.

Nearly 2,500 people remain employed at the Homestead facility, even though it currently houses no children. Members of Congress who have called for the end of unlicensed detention of children have taken that as a warning sign.

“We appreciate your decision to effectively remove all children from the Homestead, Florida, influx facility, and urge you to reject any future transfers to this facility, which is wholly unsuitable for vulnerable children and not in their best interest,” wrote Democratic Sens. Merkley, Dick Durbin (IL), Chris Van Hollen (MD) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), who called on the Trump administration to “permanently shut down the Homestead child prison” as a danger to the health of children in the government’s charge.

Citing “overcrowding, insufficient and sporadic language services, ineffective remote case management services, limited pediatric medical care, and a lack of trained child welfare specialists,” the senators blasted “egregious deficiencies” at the Homestead site, which, like all temporary detention centers under the purview of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, is not licensed by the state.

“The conditions at Homestead do not meet minimum standards required by both U.S. and international law,” Durbin said in a separate statement. “We cannot allow the Trump administration to send more children there.”

Accusations that the facility’s infrastructure, staff and bed space were subpar have dogged Homestead almost since it was first opened in February 2018. In an Aug. 16 letter addressed to Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for the administration for children and families at HHS, the American Civil Liberties Union cited a shocking lack of certified teachers employed at the facility.

“On our tour we were introduced to a leading educational worker… and told to direct questions on educational standards to her,” the letter, signed by Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, and Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU’s political advocacy department, states. “She said that of 130 teachers, only eight to 10 were certified.”

Lawyers for children detained in Homestead have described a prison-like atmosphere within its walls, where detained children are forbidden from hugging, holding hands or touching other kids, even their own siblings.

Even the removal of Homestead’s final residents in early August, which HHS said was the result of “closely monitor[ing] referral numbers adjusting bed capacity to respond to changing levels of need,” has raised concerns. Between 175 and 177 children were relocated from the facility on August 3 between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m., “without any prior warning to the children since their arrival” at Homestead, the ACLU claimed. “We do not know when their families, their intended sponsors or their attorneys of record were notified.”

“Waking children up in the middle of the night—including those who have previously experienced severe trauma—to pack them into a van or bus and send them to an unknown location is likely to cause anxiety and fear,” the letter continued, calling the separation of children from counselors “cruel.”

“Homestead is not a home for children,” said Denise Bell, a researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International, whose report on the facility, No Home for Children: The Homestead ‘Temporary Emergency’ Facility, details conditions in Homestead. “Homestead is an industrial line for processing mass numbers of children, instead of focusing on their best interests. The message from this administration is clear: if children come to the U.S. fleeing for their lives, the government will lock them up and make it as difficult as possible to secure their release.”

Pediatric medical experts have almost universally decried child detention—even in licensed facilities—as inherently dangerous to the health and well-being of the children being detained.

“There’s no amount of detention that has been found to be good for children,” said Dr. Alan Shapiro, a pediatrician and co-founder of Terra Firma, an organization that provides medical care to undocumented immigrant children. “Children should never be placed in these detention centers… Being in these large facilities where there’s not proper monitoring, it’s very easy for things to go wrong very quickly.”

In a statement to The Daily Beast, HHS did not address when Homestead might reopen, asserting that “retaining bed capacity at the Homestead influx facility is necessary to provide care and services to [unaccompanied minors] as mandated,” and that the department anticipates “an uptick in the number of referrals” in the fall.

If that uptick occurs, and results in Homestead’s reopening, members of Congress said, they had better learn about it beforehand.

“If any any point you intend to resume transfers of children to Homestead,” the Democratic senators’ letter concludes, “we request that you submit a justification in writing to Congress within 24 hours describing how your decision would be in a child’s best interest.”