Billboards in Florida denounce 'locking up' migrant kids ahead of World Children's Day

“We don’t believe in locking up children. Do you?” is one of the billboards put up by Amnesty International, a few miles from Disney World in Orlando.
A billboard by Amnesty International USA in Miami, near Homestead, Fla, a facility that until recently was housing detained immigrant children.
A billboard by Amnesty International USA in Miami, near Homestead, Fla., where a facility until recently was housing detained immigrant children.Adam DelGiudice / Amnesty International

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By Carmen Sesin

MIAMI — A human rights organization has put up some eye-catching billboards near Miami and in Orlando to call attention to the issue of detained migrant children.

Ahead of World Children's Day on Wednesday, Amnesty International USA erected two prominent billboards on Tuesday. One bright yellow sign in the city of Homestead reads: “You are now 7 miles away from where kids are locked up.” Another, in Orlando and about 10 miles outside of Disney World, reads, “We don’t believe in locking up children. Do you?”

In Orlando, the idea is to spread awareness of the plight of migrant children as families take their kids to Disney parks. Apart from the billboard, the group has put some signs on trucks and sidewalk pavements such as "Florida: Amusement parks. Beaches. Detained children.”

The Homestead billboard, visible to people driving north toward Miami, is referring to the Homestead detention center. Between March 2018 and August 2019, over 14,300 children were held at that facility according to the Department of Health and Human Services. It was shut down — at least temporarily — following intense protests by activists and scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers and human rights groups.

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Amnesty International USA found the facility had violated the rights of children by holding them for prolonged periods of time under conditions that did not meet U.S. or international standards, according to a report released in July by the group. Another report released in October documents what Amnesty International USA says are violations of the rights of unaccompanied children at the Homestead facility.

“If children are going to be detained, it should be in the least restrictive setting — for the least amount of time," said Denise Bell, Amnesty International USA’s Researcher for Refugee and Migrant Rights and the author of the report on Homestead. Bell said there are times where children need to be detained for their safety when there is not a relative readily available to care for them, but it should be for as short a time as possible in something like a smaller, state licensed shelter or a smaller shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

The main issue, Bell said, is that children need to be released much faster than they are.

Caliburn International, the private prison company that ran Homestead, did not have its contract renewed by the federal government; their current contract expires Nov. 30. The Department of Health and Human Services will retain access to the facility. The Trump administration said it could reopen if there is an increase in unaccompanied children.

"It's not a home...it's a warehouse"

The billboards comes on the heels of a United Nations study that found the United States is among the countries with the highest number of detained children. Children should be detained as a last resort and for the briefest time possible, according to the U.N. Global Study on Children Deprived Liberty. In 2019, the U.S. held a record 69,550 migrant children, according to government data. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in August stating that detaining and separating families threatens the short- and long-term health of children.

Tens of thousands of children and teens travel each year, either alone, or with relatives, to the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum. The children come from all over the world, but the vast majority are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

All the billboards include the web address — TruthAboutHomestead.org — to learn more about the campaign and how to get involved.

This year, World Children’s Day marks 30 years since the U.N. adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty on childhood ratified by world leaders — though not the U.S., which signed but didn't ratify the treaty.

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