Homestead: The Largest U.S. For-Profit Detention Facility for Migrant Children
By Anne Bridgman
“Everyone knows that based on historical precedents we are going to learn about way worse things happening in the camps, right?”
That’s what Paul Musgrave, assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, tweeted this week. The same week we saw photos of children and adults held in detention centers along our southern border that didn’t seem fit for animals. The same week we heard about slurs on a private Facebook page for Customs and Border Protection agents. And the same week that the American Academy of Pediatrics released poignant drawings by migrant children who had been locked behind bars.
In Homestead, Florida, on a strip of land between Miami and the Florida Everglades, about 3,000 children and youth are locked away at the for-profit Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children. The children came to the U.S. border fleeing violence and poverty in their Central American countries. They were separated from their families or, if they came alone, were told that their U.S. contacts had to be thoroughly vetted, so they were detained.
But these youth are rarely photographed because few have been allowed access inside the facility to find out about the conditions.
I spent a week in Homestead in April witnessing. The definition of witnessing is simple: It is to show that something exists or is true. In today’s political climate of fake news and outright lies, it may be even more crucial to witness.
My fellow witnesses and I were not allowed inside. Caliburn, the company that runs Homestead, requires two-week notice when members of Congress and other officials request visits. Even the Democratic presidential candidates—among them, U.S. senators and representatives—who went to Homestead last month were not allowed inside. And because it’s a federal facility, Homestead is exempt from routine inspections by child welfare officials.
What are they hiding?
Homestead is located on an old Job Corps site next to an Air Force Reserve base. When I was there, I carried a stepladder to a narrow edge of public land. Across a street, behind an iron fence covered in green tarp, I saw the children when they were outside. I saw kids—from ages 8- to 17-years-old—walking in single file like prisoners, heads down, always with a guard, never alone. The children there are subjected to a profoundly rigid, almost military-precision level of control.
With other witnesses, I blew kisses across the fence and when the children saw us, they blew kisses back. I also made heart signs with my hands. This universal language of love made an impression on the youth. Many made heart signs back, sometimes teaming up with another youth to stand side by side and turn their whole bodies into a heart shape.
Kids called over the fence to me. They said, “Get me out of here” and “Help me.” Last week, a fellow witness said a boy called out over the fence, “We are going to die.”
Fearful emotions are ever-present for the children of Homestead. How do we know this? Because although access is severely limited, a group of lawyers gained entry as part of their lawsuit to shut down the facility. The suit was filed at the end of May in federal court in California by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, the National Center for Youth Law, and four other groups. It includes interviews with 75 detained children, many of whom cried or were despondent as they talked to the lawyers.
Every child interviewed expressed fear and anxiety related to the rules they have to live by.
Children are told at orientation that violating the rules will result in more time in detention. Some children thought rules violations would lead to an end to efforts to reunite them with their families. All the children interviewed believed that rules violations would harm their immigration status, possibly leading to deportation. Said one: “If we break the rules, we will get a report. The staff say that if we get a report, they will send it to the judge who decides whether we will stay in this country.”
Children at Homestead are kept in the dark about many other aspects of their detention. Most said they didn’t know how long they would be held or what had to happen for them to be released. Most were unaware that visits by family members are allowed.
Numerous children told the lawyers that their caseworkers changed so frequently that they didn’t know who was in charge of reuniting them with family members or their cases had been delayed because of the time it took for new staff to learn about their cases. During the lawyers’ visit, they reported eight vacancies for caseworker positions. Said one boy: “I have had four different social workers since I’ve been here, and they all tell me different things about what’s happening with my release.”
Youth are told that they can’t be reunited with a family member because they have never met or because the sponsor is the wife of a family member and not a blood relative. Children report that their family members say they have submitted fingerprints, but months go by without news about their cases. Several children have parents in the United States who have submitted the appropriate paperwork, but they are still detained. A 16-year-old from Guatemala was told that she couldn’t be taken in by an uncle because “I didn’t have any photos of me and him together.”
Most of the children interviewed had never been informed about the Flores agreement, which generally limits the time youth are held in detention to 20 days. The U.S. government says Homestead is exempt from the agreement because it’s a temporary facility; some children have been held for as long as 11 months.
Children aren’t allowed to touch each other, give hugs, or get comforting words from staff. Said one girl: “Sometimes something good will happen and my niece will say to me, ‘Give me a hug!’ but I have to say ‘no’ because we are not allowed to touch. There are cameras here watching us.” Said another: “I need to be comforted, but there is no way for that to happen here.”
Boys told the lawyers that in their dorms at night, many of them cry. Girls said there is crying throughout the night and some of them are self-harming.
Said one boy: “Other children here are also very sad. . . . Some children do not have anyone to receive them in the United States. They do not know whether they can ever leave from here. These children are suffering the most. Much of the time they are crying and crying. They do not have energy, they do not have hope. . . . One of my friends has no one to receive him in the United States. When he is in his room, he just cries and cries.”
Based on thousands of studies, we know that a strong foundation for health development requires “a stable, responsive, and supportive relationship with at least one parent or primary caretaker,” according to Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, who testified before Congress earlier this year. High and persistent levels of stress—known as “toxic stress”—can disrupt the architecture of the developing brain and other biological systems with serious repercussions for learning, behavior, and lifelong physical and mental health. Said Shonkoff: “Toxic stress is a ticking clock—and prolonged separation inflicts increasingly greater harm as each week goes by.”
This is on top of the trauma they have already experienced fleeing their home countries and making the arduous trip to our border.
Ryan Matlow, practicing licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the director of community programs for Stanford’s Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program, toured Homestead. He says: “My observations showed clear ongoing psychological harm directly attributable to detention and separation practices. . . .
“Children are deprived of opportunities for activities, materials, and interpersonal interactions that are typical of child development and that promote healthy physical, emotional, and behavioral development. The conditions observed . . . are consistent with those that create trauma and that commonly result in posttraumatic stress and long-lasting functional impairment.”
What’s happening at Homestead and at other detention facilities around our country is a humanitarian crisis. Together, we have to make sure that America doesn’t forget these children who are stuck in a crowded detention center without adequate support and who are afraid and unsure about what their future holds. Because they are hidden behind fences, we have to be their voices.
How can you help?
Learn more about Homestead by joining the Witness: Tornillo. Target: Homestead Facebook page
Tell friends, colleagues, neighbors, & family about Homestead; many are unaware this is happening.
Write your members of Congress, urge them to visit Homestead, and ask them to cosponsor bills to shut down Homestead: The Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act (S3798) was introduced by Senator Merkley and Representative Chu; the Families Not Facilities Act (S388) was introduced by Senator Harris.
Join in the national protest of detention camps on July 12: For more information, look up “Lights for Liberty” and “July 12.”
Write Caliburn, parent company of Comprehensive Health Services, and demand they stop making over $1.5 million a day off the suffering of children and youth in Homestead, FL. (Write to Caliburn International Corp., 10701 Parkridge Blvd., Suite 200, Reston, VA 20191.)
Anne Bridgman is a writer, editor, and activist who lives in Eugene, Oregon.
The photographs of children at the detention facility are by Joshua Rubin. The photograph of Anne Bridgman is by Tina Marie Davidson.