One by one, the teens line up. One line is for girls, the other, for boys. They are put in order by age.
With towels, undergarments, clothes and shoes in hand, they are separated into groups of eight and enter the white shower stalls.
The children, who are unaccompanied minors from age 0 to 17, were in the custody of Homeland Security just days before. Most of them were escaping danger and poverty in their home countries in Central America by crossing the Mexican border. After three days, they were placed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and flown to Miami, later to be bused to a temporary shelter in Homestead.
As they arrive, they are immediately given multi-colored identification wristbands and clothes. They sanitize their hands and are taken to shower rooms at the Homestead Air Reserve Base at Homestead’s Job Corps site.
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The wave of minors crossing the border without family was the first group of many expected to arrive at the site as they continue to flee Central America.
It’s the first time South Florida houses unaccompanied minors. More than 200 are currently residing at the shelter, which has the capacity for 600 more. The children are ages 13 to 17 and are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. All kids under 13 are placed in a temporary shelter.
The federal government operates about 100 permanent shelters across the country, but the Homestead site is the only temporary shelter currently active and was opened to handle the overflow of youths awaiting an immigration hearing.
“Let’s go back in time. In 2014, the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the borders left pictures of kids piled up at border patrol. There was no capacity for the 58,000 at the permanent shelters,” HHS spokeswoman Stephanie Acker Housman said. “That’s when [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] started to work with Homeland Security to make improvements and increase preparedness by setting up additional temporary shelters.”
In 2015, about 33,000 minors came through the system — the nation’s second highest in history, Housman said. However, a temporary shelter wasn’t needed.
“In the fall of 2016 we saw an uptick in referrals and that’s why we’re in Homestead right now,” Housman said, adding that at the previous temporary shelter in New Mexico, it cost about $500 a day to care for each minor. She said HHS “doesn’t have a clue” what it will cost to house the children at the Homestead location until “some time passes.”
The air base was a good shelter candidate because it is federal land, and already had a facility with ample space, cafeterias and dormitories.
The complex includes the former Job Corps building, which can sleep 800 children, plus newly erected tents that house bathroom, laundry and other facilities.
Last week, HHS gave the Miami Herald a tour of the facility. No recording devices were allowed to “protect the privacy of the children,” Housman said.
At the shelter, the children are provided with meals, medical care and schooling. Counselors work with children who may have experienced mental, physical or sexual abuse as well as others who have escaped gang threats and extreme poverty. Before the children are accommodated, they are vaccinated and tested for tuberculosis.
The tall white circus-like tents took about a month to set up. The make-shift facility has an officer at every point. Every time a child enters or leaves a building, their bracelets are scanned. During the first week of their stay, they are assigned a bunk bed. Ninety-eight bunks are lined up inside a massive room, storage bins can be seen under each bed. In the hallway, colorful cork boards with the daily schedule and activities adorn the walls.
They are given three meals and two snacks a day (3,500 calories). Wake-up time is 6:30 a.m. and lights go out at 10:30 p.m. All staff are bilingual.
Some teen girls played Monopoly as they sat on magenta, emerald and navy beanbag chairs. Others were getting ready to play soccer outside.
“Yes, can’t wait to beat you out there,” one girl told another in Spanish as she put on her white socks.
A younger girl playing dominoes can be seen throwing her hands in the air and exclaimed, “I’m winning!”
After about five days, the children are transitioned into small dorms in the Job Corps building. Each group of eight is assigned a “team leader” who is a member of the staff. The staff members have rotational shifts; supervision is 24/7. All children are allowed two calls a week to their parents back home or potential sponsor in the U.S.
In classroom down the hall from the sleeping area, boys sporting red, black and blue T-shirts can be seen taking a test. All kids attend ESOL, U.S. history, reading and writing classes.
Nearby, a girl sat in an empty classroom. Her hands cupped her forehead and tears streamed down her face. Two counselors or teachers sat with her.
The Miami Herald was not allowed to interview any child per rules of HSS.
The federal agency is responsible for providing around-the-clock care and safety of the unaccompanied immigrant children while they are in the country. Children spend 32 days on average at the shelters while the government looks for a sponsor and the youths await immigration proceedings. Sponsors are usually parents, a close relative or a family friend.
The children do not integrate into the local community. Around the camp are tall fences with various security checkpoints.
Instead, the children have access to basketball, volleyball and other sports. They are offered one religious service a week and have lounges with video games and books. There is no internet or visitors on the premises.
Last year, about 55 percent of children who crossed the border had parents living in the U.S. and went to live with them; 35 percent went to live with close family members; and the remaining went to live with a distant relative or family friends, according to HSS.
In August 2015, federal officials suspended classes at Homestead Job Corps after four students were arrested and charged with the machete murder of a classmate. Most Job Corps participants from the Miami-Dade area are enrolled in other Job Corps centers in Florida.
Liz Marie Alvarado, immigration coordinator of American Friends Service Committee, was going into a scheduled tour for “stakeholders” as the Herald was leaving. She said the shelter’s location worries her.
“This Job Corps site was known for a lot of crime and I just want to make sure that that is not being replicated,” Alvarado said. “I’m worried about the situation that these young people find themselves in today and what they were trying so hard to flee from. I want to make sure that this is a safe place and that they are respected and that their integrity is protected.”
Alvarado says she visits several shelters that house unaccompanied minors that crossed the border. Last week was her first time visiting the Homestead shelter.
“Every shelter is different; there has been some very good feedback yet some feedback that’s concerning, too, according to children I’ve spoken to in the past,” she said, adding that “mistreatment was one of them.”
“Some children have issues regarding them not feeling like like human beings because of the different things they have to go through like vaccinations, which is fine; it’s blurry,” she said. “Sometimes it blurs the line between dignity and respect.”
Alvarado, like the Herald, won’t have any contact with the children. She says she won’t have feedback until they are out of the shelter and with their sponsors.