When we were in El Paso, we visited Tornillo, a tent city that housed unaccompanied and separated children ages 13-17. At its peak, it held around 2,500 children. It closed down while we were there and most of the children were united with their sponsors. Some of the children, however, were sent to another camp in Homestead, Florida which has become the focal point for efforts to eliminate child detention. Homestead is the largest of the child detention centers and unlike others, is run by a for profit organization and does not have state oversite.
There are numerous reasons why children are held in detention. If they are separated from their parents, come alone or are with an aunt, uncle, cousin, or brother instead of a parent, they are defined as unaccompanied and put in detention. The large number of children in detention was largely due to an administration policy to require every adult in the sponsor’s household to get a background check instead of just the sponsor. Not surprising, some adults refused to get them and the children remained in detention. That policy has now been rescinded.
There were 3,000 children separated from their parents during the zero tolerance policy of this administration. 2,737 have been reunited but there may be still more children who were separated before the court required the administration to track them and since the ruling to stop separating children. There is no way to know how many children this represents. Even though this policy of separating children has been banned, over 100 children have been separated since June 2018. Some children may never be reunited with parents or family because there is no way to find the parents who have been deported or the children were given into foster care.
Because Homestead is a “temporary” or “influx” shelter on federal lands, it is not subject to state regulations and inspections intended to guarantee child welfare – only a loose set of Health and Human Services guidelines. The concern for advocates is that Homestead is a for-profit organization and it is in the best interest of the owner – Comprehensive Health Services, a division of Caliburn International – to house as many children as possible as long as possible (an average of 67 days) with the least amount of services. The time of stay has increased to 89 days during 2019. This arrangement is also a way to get around the Flores Settlement that limits the amount of time a child may be detained to 20 days. Another downside of keeping the children so long is that if they are in detention when they turn 18, they are immediately taken into ICE custody and deported.
Examples of reduced regulation occur in healthcare and education. In regular children’s shelters, Health and Human Services (HHS) requires a 12 children to 1 clinician to provide mental health care. At Homestead, it’s 20-1. Other detention centers require an educational component with certified teachers. There are also no certified teachers providing any educational programs and the superintendent of schools for the Homestead area has not been contacted.
Currently, HHS spends about $775 per child per day at Homestead. This is compared to other facilities that cost around $276/day. Comprehensive Health Services has been issued state licenses for three permanent shelters in South Texas to hold 500 migrant children for the government. In an IPO filing last fall, Caliburn International stated that the administration’s “border enforcement and immigration policy…is driving significant growth” for the company.
This problem is only going to grow. In January, the Customs and Border Protection collected over 5,000 unaccompanied children. As of the middle of February, there were 11,500 children in HHS custody, down from nearly 15,000 last December but nearly 80% higher than the year before. A bill was recently introduced in congress called the “Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act” (H.R. 1069). This bill prohibits HHS from maintaining and opening any more emergency shelters. This really is an unacceptable situation. Children need to be with family not in shelters.
*Facebook Group for those wanting to close Homestead