An ID, 5 outfits, and 10-minute calls: the life of migrant youth at Homestead shelter

Several dozen boys, many of whom were wearing gray, government-issued T-shirts and navy blue shorts, walked out of a building labeled “DINING HALL” after breakfast. Behind metal barricades, the boys formed a single-file line on the way to their next scheduled activity. Some smiled and waved, seemingly amused by all the people with pens and notepads looking at them.

About 20 journalists from news organizations, including the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald, watched the immigrant children as the reporters were ushered through the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, a facility under such tight control that Sen. Bill Nelson, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other government officials were turned away on Tuesday.

After Nelson was denied entry, he said, "It's clear this administration is hiding something."

Friday's guided, one-hour tour seemed to be an attempt to dispel this idea. Cellphones and audio or video recording equipment were prohibited — a "matter of security of privacy on minors in our shelters," said Mark Weber, a representative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Homestead shelter as well as those in Texas, New York and elsewhere.

The Homestead complex is the second-largest shelter in the country and is managed by Comprehensive Health Services, a company that has a U.S. contract for at least $30 million. The site is home to 1,179 migrant children (792 boys and 387 girls) between the ages of 13 and 17 — including 70 who had been separated from their families at the Mexican border — who are waiting to be reunited with relatives or guardians. The majority come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, said program director Leslie Wood.

These numbers change day-by-day as children arrive in buses from the border or depart for permanent housing, usually with a parent or family member, Wood said. And more children are expected.

Immigration Florida (1).JPG
Migrant children walk outside at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children a former Job Corps site that now houses them, on Friday, June 22, 2018. U.S. officials provided a glimpse into the South Florida facility housing more than 1,000 teen-age migrants, seeking to dispel any suggestions that children are being mistreated. Brynn Anderson AP

Journalists entered the facility on golf carts driven by employees hired by HHS. It was around 9 a.m. and a group of boys had just finished eating breakfast in one of the many squat, tan-colored buildings on the property, which used to be part of Homestead Air Force Base.

The last time the media was allowed to enter the shelter was in 2016, during another restricted tour.

The facility opened in June 2016, during former President Barack Obama's administration, and housed minors who entered the country illegally without their parents during an exodus primarily out of Central America. The shelter was closed in April 2017, when the number of people crossing the border decreased significantly after President Donald Trump took office.

The federal government discreetly reopened the shelter on March 29, shortly before the Trump administration enacted its zero-tolerance policy in April, resulting in the family separations at the border.

Authorities insist that shelters housing minors are not "detention" centers. But children and adolescents can't leave until relatives or guardians in the U.S. who can take them in complete an extensive process that includes fingerprinting, background checks and, due to recent changes, verification of immigration status. Under the Trump administration, that information is now turned over to the Department of Homeland Security, a practice that has deterred undocumented relatives from claiming minors.

A dorm at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

According to Wood, a boy tried to escape in recent months. He ran through the facility until staff managed to stop him. Wood said the minor "was anxious" but then calmed down and apologized.

The facility is surrounded by a fence, but without barbed wire and is patrolled by unarmed guards. All of the youngsters have an ID card that must go through a scanner to enter and leave each of the buildings. Most remain at the shelter for an average of 25 days, Wood said.

Nationally there are about 12,000 children and adolescents in similar circumstances and the average time in government custody, before meeting with their families, is 57 days, an HHS spokesperson told the Nuevo Herald. In 2016, the average time was 32 days.

When asked if she felt comfortable calling the area a detention facility, Wood said no.

“It’s not a detention facility,” she said. “I see this as a shelter. We provide the least restrictive setting at this facility.”

Journalists were first led into the area called the “operation center.” They were discouraged from asking too many questions, as the tour was limited to one hour.

Wood said that the facility has a capacity of 1,350 children, but it can "expand or contract as needed," an HHS fact sheet said.

“When the number of children increases, we activate Homestead,” Weber, the HHS representative, said.

Facilities like this one are the second step for children who cross the border. The first, Weber said, is processing at border control, which takes approximately 72 hours. Children are then bused or flown to one of 100 facilities across 17 states that house “unaccompanied alien children.” After that, children are placed in permanent housing and go through the judicial system.

“The vast majority end up with a parent or close relative,” Wood said. “Sometimes with a family friend. Sometimes we have to use foster care.”

The reporters were led into the dining facility minutes after a group of kids ate breakfast. It takes approximately two hours for all the children to cycle in and out for meals, Wood said.

It takes about two hours for all 1,200 children in the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children to cycle through the dining room each meal. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

On display in the cafeteria was a typical American meal: scrambled eggs, sausage patties, hash browns, biscuits, and apples. Colorful trays were stacked on the counter. Spanish music played on speakers. Colorful signs, much like ones you’d see in a middle school classroom, adorned the walls. “DO NOT ENTER / negative thoughts,” one said. “The sky is the limit!” said another.

Students follow a rigid schedule that begins at 6:30 A.M. and ends at 10 P.M. They are escorted between activities in single-file lines. Children are separated by gender and organized into groups by age. They have six hours of curriculum a day, excluding physical education. Their classes include English, math, reading and writing, science, and history. Wood said the teachers have degrees, but do not necessarily meet Florida standards; they are not employees of Miami-Dade schools.

Journalists were then shown a dorm room with six bunk beds, two sinks, a shower and a toilet. Dorms are divided by age. Siblings are not guaranteed to be in the same room, but can be if they are of similar ages.

In addition to school, students get two 10-minute phone calls a week, recreation time, and are expected to participate in individual and group counseling sessions. Wood said children who display good behavior can watch movies or World Cup matches as a group. Church services are offered on Saturday for the children, many of whom are religious, Wood said. These events take place in the multipurpose tent, a large air-conditioned area with hundreds of fold-up chairs.

Wood answered questions about punishment reluctantly, saying that employees use positive reinforcement. If a drug-addicted or pregnant child arrives at this facility, he or she is moved to other facilities. Children with possible gang affiliations are also housed at other locations.

Journalists were not shown any cage-like facilities, and Wood denied that any existed on site.

“These are good children,” she said. “They’re just fleeing violence in their country."

A decorated wall at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Journalists were also shown the education tent, another large, white, air-conditioned tent. Inside were several classrooms, separated by tarp-like barriers. The posters on the wall seemed to be a few years old; an image of all the U.S. presidents ended with Barack Obama.

Wood said many of the children were unused to having air-conditioned facilities. Even in the sunny, 90 degree heat, many children walked wore long pants or sweatshirts. A few boys played basketball on concrete as others played soccer on the patchy grass.

Reporters were also taken to Clothing Issue, a building lined with clear buckets full of shirts, jeans, underwear, socks, shoes, and other apparel, where children are issued five days worth of clothing and hygiene equipment. Upon entering the Homestead shelter, the children’s possessions, other than their clothes, are taken away and “safeguarded” by the facility, Wood said.

In the Case Management room, the last full stop on the tour, several case management workers sat at their desks. The only child in the room was on a computer with a caseworker, using Google images to look at pictures of birds.

Toward the end of the tour, Weber commented on Nelson and Wasserman Schultz and other elected officials being turned away earlier in the week.

“When someone just shows up with a few minutes notice, it doesn’t give us an opportunity to not disrupt services,” he said.

The facility is giving official tours to members of the U.S. Senate and Congress on Saturday. Later on Friday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio briefly toured the facility. Afterwards, the Republican lawmaker said while he did not agree with the practice of separating children from parents at the southern border, the shelter was “trying to do the best they can” under “very challenging circumstances.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

Rubio, who was heckled by a pair of critics during his press conference, said parents who illegally enter the country should be detained with their children while their cases are processed. Rubio said he would continue to support plans to invest in programs that provide aid to countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, so that families “don't’ have to leave.”

“It’s something that I’ve been supporting for a long time and we need to do more of it,” he said. “We don’t have a migratory crisis from Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Chile because these are places where people are not facing the same dangers and the same challenges.”

For 70 children at the shelter who were separated from their parents upon entering the US, the future is uncertain.

Although Trump recently signed an executive order to keep migrant families together, officials have said they have no clear plan on how to reunite the more than 2,000 children who have already been separated from their parents after entering the country illegally. Even in cases where parents know where their children are, is is not known when they can be reunited.

Staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.